For almost two weeks, activists occupied Hayes Valley Farm in San Francisco in an effort to mount a “garden defense” against Build, Inc. The developers plan to raze the farm to make way for (what else?) 182 condo units, retail space and 91 parking spaces in an underground garage. Inspired by Turkish protesters who occupied Gezi Park in central Istanbul until police forced them out last weekend, the activists in San Francisco renamed the farm “Gezi Gardens.”
Unfortunately, San Francisco police did what their counterparts in Turkey did. Fortified by riot gear, they raided the Hayes Valley Farm early on the morning of June 13. Activists were arrested and one who been stationed in a protest platform in a tree fell 30 feet.
But a hummingbird could still save the day.
Build, Inc. wasted no time in moving in and cutting down trees. Then someone alerted them about Allen’s hummingbird which nests on the land. The development of the Hayes Valley Farm has now been put on hold as federal biologists and wardens from the Department of Fish and Wildlife launch their own investigation.
It is not that Allen’s hummingbird is endangered. Along with other birds who are not pets, the little hummingbird that can be found in many a yard in California and Oregon is protected under the 1918 Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is illegal to destroy a migratory bird’s nest and eggs, though not their habitat.
After the federal investigators complete their work, Build, Inc. could simply be fined. Or, the entire project could come to a halt.
San Francisco does have some of the lowest housing vacancy rates in the nation and some very high rents; it is in the midst of the one of the worst housing shortages “in memory,” as one resident, journalist Scott James, recently writes in the New York Times. The median rental price for a one-bedroom apartment is now $2,764 a month. About five percent of the city’s rental units (about 10,600 rental units) are vacant because, James writes, “anti-landlord housing laws and political climate make it untenable” to rent. Needless to say, developers and would-be renters are welcoming a boom in rental construction.
I grew up across the bay from San Francisco in Oakland. My family frequently went to San Francisco and it was impossible not to be fascinated by the city’s unique geography (those incredibly steep hills), Golden Gate Park and so much more. My grandfather lived in the Sunset district because, as my mother explained, he liked to be near the ocean. I live in northern New Jersey now and I’m not kidding to say that I’ve heard some people here (including some of my students from other countries such as Bulgaria) refer to San Francisco as a kind of Oz.
The city’s beauty and uniqueness are interwound with the sense that nature — the ocean, groves of trees — is never too far away. You don’t realize how much this means until you frequent some of the cities here in New Jersey. There are certainly parks in Newark and Trenton, but there are blocks and blocks of vacant lots with plastic bags flapping in the wind. There are brown fields, abandoned buildings, plenty of cars and (of course) McDonalds.
Of course people need places to live; some of the land in the Hayes Valley Farm is supposed to provide affordable housing. But the loss of open space that had been used for organic farming to make way for condos, retail space and parking will have an inevitable, not immediately visible effect on the environment. 182 condo units means at least 182 more people needing utilities such as water. It means the land won’t be use for growing things but will be encased in asphalt.
Let’s put it this way: Anyone can see condos, retail space and parking lots anywhere. But in how many cities can you see a farm with rows of organic vegetables growing and resident wildlife hovering nearby?
Photo by ecov ottos