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Dearborn Garden

by Tam Tran

Joni Mitchell’s well-known lyric “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” is a rueful sentiment about the destruction of our natural environment. But there is at least one place in San Francisco where that process was actually reversed.

The Dearborn Community Garden is located on a quiet street about two blocks northeast of Dolores Park, adjacent to 43-49 Dearborn Street. It was formerly an employee parking lot for the Pepsico bottling plant situated at the southwest corner of 17th and Valencia Streets. This is also where the police station is now. As the plant's business started to wane, the parking lot stood virtually empty for many years. Neighbors started to garden there, taking advantage of the empty spaces to create small patches of greenery. While some may consider this an act of “guerrilla gardening,” the new gardeners claimed they had implicit permission from the managers of the bottling plant.

The bottling plant closed in 1991, and Pepsico sold the land to the City and County of San Francisco, which subsequently built a police station that stands there today. At the same time, Pepsico donated the land that held its parking lot to the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), with a stipulation that it remain open space.

Unfortunately, the deeds were never recorded, and no title was filed with the City. In 2001, the City wanted to auction off the land for non-payment of property taxes. The gardeners organized and collected money to pay the taxes, and they have been paying the taxes ever since.

Since then, the lot’s gardeners have formed a loose group called the Dearborn Community Garden. It is working toward transferring ownership of the site to the City to guarantee that the garden continues to function as a community space. For example, if SLUG were to completely dissolve, it may be possible that the garden would be sold as an asset.

The City’s Real Estate Division is presently overseeing the transaction to transfer ownership of the land to the Recreation and Park Department, which supports and manages a program of 40 community gardens on City-owned property. These gardens already operate much like the Dearborn Garden does: each garden is managed by a group of volunteers who grow ornamentals and produce for personal use through individual or shared plots.

The Dearborn Garden contains 45 plots that are tended by families in the neighborhood. The gardening group welcomes visitors if the fence is open, which usually indicates that there is someone working on his or her plot. If you drop by, you might find a small-scale version of paradise that was created from a former parking lot.

Sources: Marvin Yee, City of San Francisco, Department of Recreation and Parks. Matt Wilson, Former Officer, Dearborn Community Garden Group.

• Dearborn Garden, courtesy of Susan Saperstein.

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Located at Dearborn and Bird Streets, the small garden resembles a packed garage of plant collections.

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