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Neighbors are doin' it for themselves at Quesada Gardens Initiative


Like many people who see a pretty rose in bloom, Annette Smith likes to take in the sight and scent of it. But when she bends her head to inhale this particular rose’s fragrance, her enjoyment comes with a deeper meaning — she remembers where this rosebush came from, and how and when it was planted here.

Smith knows the stories behind most of the plants growing in the Quesada Gardens project — which is on the median strip of Quesada Avenue, off of busy Third Street in the Bayview. The mostly single-family houses on either side of the street face lush greenery, flowers, and even some fruits and vegetables.

“There was a lot of dead grass, weeds,” she recalls. “It had all kinds of debris: beer cans, liquor bottles, needles of where they were using drugs, condoms. Name it, it was out there.”

Smith moved onto Quesada Avenue in the late 90’s. Her brother, who lived on the block, told her about an apartment opening near him. Back then, the median strip was bare except for the garbage and some stately palm trees, planted back in the 1920’s. The block was also at that time a hub for a bustling drug trade, with the violence, prostitution, and despair that often goes along with it.

“Anytime, day or night, you’d see somebody walking along like zombies because they was so out of it,” says Smith. The toxic atmosphere left a lot of people afraid to come outside.

Planting a seed of neighborliness

That’s how things were when Jeffrey Betcher moved onto the street, a little after Smith. Although some of Betcher’s friends were worried for him — a gay white man moving into historically black Bayview — he says his race and sexual orientation were never an issue. His problem was the same one Smith described.

“People were living in isolation,” he says. “They were fearful — we all were.”

Betcher moved in next door to Annette Smith’s brother, Woody. That’s how Smith and Betcher first met, in front of Woody’s house. The two hit it off from the start, and soon became close friends.

One day in early 2002, Betcher came home from work to find that something was different about the median strip in front of his house. Woody had dug up a patch of grass, looking for worms to use as fishing bait, and his sister had felt bad about the mess he left behind. So she and another neighbor, Karl Paige, decided to take advantage of the turned earth: they planted some collard greens, and then some flowers.

Soon, Smith and Paige were gardening every day, and the median strip started to look a little brighter. Betcher says it wasn’t long before other neighbors started coming outside to ask about what was happening, and then they started to pitch in. Some were experienced gardeners and dug right in; others hung out and gave “moral support” through conversation, or just a thumbs up as they drove past. People on the block were seeing something they hadn’t seen before, right outside their front doors: neighbors not afraid to shake hands, give hugs, and just be out on the street together. “That changed the world very quickly,” says Betcher.

Smith and Paige — helped by Betcher and other neighbors — gardened in little plots along the median for about a year, all on an ad hoc basis. Then, in 2003, a meeting took place on Quesada Avenue. A group of about 30 residents got together in one neighbor’s backyard to talk about how to improve their block. Betcher says he initially thought the drug dealing was going to be the top issue. As it turns out, the neighbors had a broad range of priorities, from rat infestations to mosquito abatement.

Betcher says there was one thing that all the neighbors did agree on: “That there was already beauty and strength here in this community. And Karl and Annette were showing us that in the garden.”

They chose the name Quesada Gardens Initiative at that first meeting. Neighbors started bringing plants from their own backyards. There were donations from nurseries. Smith says sometimes she would open her front door in the morning to find a plant or cutting someone had left there in the night.

Betcher had experience in non-profit administration, so he started working on the organization’s tax status, and getting the attention of media and funders. There was some initial resistance from city officials, who seemed wary of un-sanctioned items being placed on city land, but they soon came around when they saw the value the gardens brought to the block.

“They didn't have to send anybody out there to cut the grass or anything, because we were doing all the work,” says Smith.

The beautification of the physical space helped to fill in something that had been missing from the block before. “For me it was knowing my neighbors," Betcher says, "busting through that isolation.”

The tendrils reach further

Joel and Mary McClure live a short distance up the hill from the Quesada Gardens, on winding Bridgeview Street. They have great views from many parts of their house, but when they moved in, the view from the living room window was an empty lot owned by the city. The lot was an illegal dumping ground, with mattresses, car parts and other refuse piled up on top of loose dirt.

From their back deck, the McClure’s could see the swaying palms and blooming flowers of the Quesada Gardens.

“So you would see all this beauty on this [one] side,” says Mary McClure, “and then we would go to the other side of our house and you would see this horrible weed-infested lot. So we could only take it for so long, and then finally, we just said, ‘That’s it. We’ve gotta do something — and it’s gonna be us.’”

The McClure’s were able to secure permission, assistance, and a water source from the city. But Joel McClure says he was mostly inspired by the do-it-yourself attitude of the Quesada Gardens neighbors. “We can't always keep asking the government to do things for us, specifically when it's right there in our backyard,” he says.

Over a period of weeks, the McClure’s, their neighbors and some dedicated student volunteers turned the trash-filled lot into a terraced garden. Much of it produces fruits and vegetables for the neighbors. Mary and Joel McClure say they enjoy the gardening, but what they get out of it is something bigger. They say they lived in their house for three years and never knew their neighbors — but once the garden got started, that all changed.

One of the neighbors they met was 10-year-old Serenity Williams, who lives across the street on Bridgeview. Williams says she looked out the window one day to see people working in the garden, and although she had never gardened before, she knew she wanted to try. She asked her mom if she could go down and help. Mary McClure put her to work watering plants that first day, and pretty soon she was gardening every weekend.

Williams says at first she was shy, but the McClure’s welcomed her with open arms. “They gave me courage, to not be afraid to do this,” says Williams. 

Continuing to bloom

Jeffrey Betcher says he feels a real sense of safety on his block now, and that he can’t imagine living anywhere else. “People respond differently to everything when they're on a block where they have a sense that people know one another, people are looking out for each other.”

But Betcher is not afraid to admit that things aren’t perfect, either. He says the drug dealing has not stopped completely, and illegal trash still shows up in the garden sometimes. Some of the people that were known as “troublemakers” are still there. 

“But quality of life is radically improved. So it wasn't about them really. It was about something else,” he says. “You don't have to get rid of people. A lot of those people are still here, they just respect the block more, because they know us. And they know the impact of what they're doing. There's going to be an impact on real people who they know.”

By the same token, Betcher says he is hesitant to call the police on a neighbor for possibly illegal activities, “because I know that person is going to have a really bad day, if not a longer bad time [if I do]. And I don't want to cause that to somebody. I'd rather find another solution.”

At this point, Quesada Gardens Initiative projects include two murals, six community gardens, and Bayview Footprints, a weekly newsletter that highlights good news in the neighborhood.

And though about half the homes on that first block of Quesada have changed residents since Annette Smith and Karl Paige planted those first collard greens, the spirit of neighborliness and safety they helped to foster has continued to grow, and bloom.

That piece was produced in 2013 as part of our Sights & Sounds of Bayview project, in partnership with the San Francisco Arts Commission. Jeffrey Betcher passed away on Saturday after a long illness.