History of the Westbrae Commons (Peralta, Northside, and Karl Linn Gardens)

The Peralta and Northside gardens were originated by Karl Linn, a peace and social justice activist and retired professor of environmental design, who had organized the renovation of the community garden on the other side of Peralta Avenue after it was dedicated in his name. With its beautiful new planting beds, fence, tool shed, and handcrafted commons, the waiting list for plots had mushroomed. The much-larger, unused, and oddly shaped lot across the street beckoned. Karl and Berkeley City Councilwoman Linda Maio negotiated a contract for use of the land signed by BART and the City, and Linda lobbied the city council for $10,000 in seed money to install water lines and construct the gardens.
Neighbors held work parties to remove broken bottles, metal, concrete, and other debris that had accumulated over the years. A lengthy and challenging process of exploration, discussion and design got underway. Berkeley’s Recycling Program provided truckloads of compost to enrich the soil. AmeriCorps volunteers prepared planting beds, created networks of compacted pathways, and installed an irrigation system.
Unlike the Peralta Garden design team the Northside gardeners favored a more open-ended, do-it-yourself approach. The garden is composed of irregularly shaped beds framed with a variety of creatively recycled materials. Only two wheelchair-accessible raised beds were constructed with redwood planks.
The completion of construction in 1997 was celebrated with a fall harvest dedication ceremony. Artists were invited to create temporary art installations for the occasion. The next summer artist Sofie Siegmann led a youth group in creating a sundial with mosaic designs for the hours. The following summer she led another group in painting murals for the garden gate.
For about three years between 1998 and 2001 architect John Fordice spent weekends conducting workshops on cob, an ancient building method, using it to construct a tool shed for the Northside Garden. Cob uses a moistened mixture of soil, sand, and straw to construct walls. Participants enjoyed preparing the mixture by stomping on it with their bare feet.

First-hand account, excerpted from “Reclaiming the Sacred Commons” by Karl Linn

In 1993, at a surprise 70th birthday party, a community garden in North Berkeley was dedicated in my name for “lifelong service to community and peace.” Since the garden was overgrown and its two dilapidated tool sheds had become an eyesore, I collaborated with friends, neighbors, students, and AmeriCorps teams during the next two years, transforming the garden and adding a beautifully hand-crafted commons and tool shed made of recycled lumber. Funding for building materials was provided by the city. As we worked together on the garden, the waiting list of neighbors wanting plots, especially those who live in nearby landless apartment complexes, grew larger and larger. Looking across the street, I noticed a vacant lot fenced in with barbed wire, filled with weeds during the summer and barren during the winter. It had accumulated debris over the years and was an affront to the neighborhood. That lot and an adjacent one had been purchased by the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) and used as a construction site for the building of one of its tunnels. Seeing this large area of vacant land I imagined it becoming another community garden, providing ample space for eager gardeners on the waiting list to stake out their plots.

After a year and a half of negotiations, the City of Berkeley and BART signed a lease allowing the lots to be developed as community gardens. During the following year neighbors came together to design and construct the two new gardens, assisted by AmeriCorps teams who worked for five weeks doing heavy construction. Funding for construction material was supplied by the City of Berkeley. On October 5, 1997, we celebrated the dedication of these unique community gardens in which works of art intermingle with lush vegetation. Both the Peralta and the Northside Community Gardens feature a commons. An extensive network of pathways made of compacted, sandlike, decomposed granite (DG) provides easy wheelchair accessibility. The gardens also demonstrate a range of ecological innovations such as a bamboo trellis, a solar-powered Flowform fountain, and a high-temperature compost bin. The gardens will also accommodate ongoing outdoor art exhibits on an 18-foot-wide access road reserved for possible use by BART’s repair equipment. The gardens have become a showcase for local artists, bringing their work to the attention of contractors who wish to involve them in creating art in buildings under construction. The city provided funds for construction materials. A 52-foot-tall bamboo pole bearing colorful, fluttering Tibetan prayer flags, which the gardeners refer to as the “happy flags,” arches over the garden expressing the spirit of growing community and celebration.

The three community gardens contribute much to the growth of neighborhood community. People who lived for years as strangers adjacent to one another become friends as they work together and meet face to face. The sense of personal connection with their individual plots inspires people to have a sense of ownership, caring, and responsibility for the gardens. Since they are eager not only to grow crops and flowers but also to socialize, adding meeting places to community gardens, makes them function successfully as neighborhood commons.

Excerpt used without permission from “Reclaiming the Sacred Commons” by Karl Linn New Village Press

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