Gangster Gardens for Peace

Guerilla Gardening in the Mission District of San Francisco by Ulrike Palmbach.

Artist Ulrike Palmbach talks about her guerrilla gardening project in the midst of San Francisco’s most rapidly gentrified neighborhood.

AMS:” What initiated the idea to the “Gangster Gardens”?”

Ulrike Palmbach:” A young guy from the neighborhood was shot in his car in front of my house on a weekday at 4 pm last year. He was part of a group of young adults that hang out on the stairs next to us. They sit there and drink and smoke dope.They grew up in the neighbourhood and now they can’t afford rent, some sleep in their cars.

When their friend was shot, they were devastated and started to put together a memorial with flowers and lots of candles. They were sitting there crying and mourning their loss.

Some of the new neighbors, who have only lived here for five years called the cops and had the memorial candles removed. This happened twice and it crushed the guys, they needed their space to mourn.

So I decided to plant gardens around the trees along the street, in order to put something there with roots. I had seedlings that I collected from plants on my walks and since they are native plants, they don’t need a lot of water and they are tough, they can handle a little piss and beer (Ulrike Laughs). The young guys hang out here because it isn’t a gangster block and if you beautify it a little bit, they don’t throw their beer bottles easily on the street, the gardens create a certain awareness. It’s a way to clean up that is not destructive but creative and it creates a new space instead of dividing people”

AMS: “In essence you have a sustainable reaction to the gentrification that pushes the latino population out of the Mission.”

Up: “Exactly, it’s a way of cleaning up that is not destructive, but creative and it creates a new space instead of dividing people”

AMS: How did the gardens affect the community ?

UP: ” All the people that come by on their way to Bart love it! They say that it’s fun to walk down the block, because there is always something new going on. I talk a lot to the passersby, I have to maintain the gardens daily. Of course people still throw their mattresses and junk on the street or on the gardens and I have to clean it up right away, because if something is trashed, more trash follows. And the gardens make the street pretty and colorful.

AMS: “How many gardens have you planted now ?”

UP: “Six”

AMS: ” A couple of years ago, there was also a fire a few blocks from you, can you speak about that?”

UP: ” The Mission is a very desired and hip neighborhood now. Across the street there is drug dealer and a neighborhood committee of recently moved in neighbors was initiated in order to have him lose his lease.

There was this fire in a rent controlled apartment building, Popeye’s chicken was on street level.It is said that it was deliberate arson in order to get the insurance money. It was really bad. Many people lost their homes and an old man died, but they couldn’t tear it down because it was only burnt down halfway. So when a new fire broke out that burned down the rest of the building it seemed too much of a coincidence. Now they can build a five storey apartment building and rent out studios for $ 3000 compared to the rent controlled units of $200 per month. In one of the newly built houses, a 1brm goes for sale for $ 800 000 on the market.

My husband and I threw three packets of wildflower seeds over the fence of the ugly empty lot of the burned down building, the flowers should come up soon (Laughs).

One of the guys’ father lost his business and now he sells vegetables from his truck. and his son sits on the steps and drinks.

AMS: “What’s next?”

UP: ” I feel like taking the idea further so I started working on a mural for an ugly wall next to a liquor store.”

Proposal for Mural by Ulrike Palmbach

Ulrike Palmbach received her BFA from San Francisco Art Institute in 1989. She has shown several times at the Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco. Palmbach resides in San Francisco.

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