Frank Snapp and the not-so-secret guerrilla garden

Frank Snapp walks up 40th Street, just east of Broadway, with a wheelbarrow full of plants and a plastic green garden hose slung in rounds over his shoulder. His olive sunhat shades denim blue eyes. It’s a 78-degree day in North Oakland and the heat rising off the asphalt makes it seem even hotter, but the fair-skinned, red-haired Snapp is in his element.

He is a gardener like many gardeners, but three things set him apart: He has a remarkable depth of knowledge about native and drought-resistant plants. He can talk about them non-stop with apparently little need for breath. And the gardens he tends are, technically, illegal, built into abandoned city medians and embankments.

“I guess I am a guerrilla gardener,” Snapp says, as he drops the hose and plants in a shady, verdant spot in the embankment. He wipes his glistening brow before heading back down 40th Street, away from the embankment, towards Opal Street.  As he walks, he describes the plants he’s nursed for over seven years as well as the soil they’re planted in. “Both the embankment and the median were saturated in Roundup,” he says, referring to the Monsanto-manufactured weed-killer much loathed by organic gardeners.  “For the embankment, I actually had to bring soil in. All that soil you see there was either trucked in or else I borrowed a friend’s truck to bring it in myself.”

Snapp uses abandoned public spaces to create demonstration gardens of what he calls “appropriate plants.”  These are nearly all drought-resistant and non-invasive varieties that, to the trained eye, reveal a storied landscape rich in Oakland’s past, present and potential future.  Some are here because they thrived in this landscape prior to human habitation, others because they are suited to this climate, but face extinction in their original home.                                                                                IMG_1118

Snapp cultivates his two publicly-owned gardens with the patience of a plant scientist and the cultural memory of an artist. This median came first. He planted it in the winter of 2002 just after moving to Oakland from New York State. He had begun guerrilla gardening in Rochester, but his non-permitted gardens on public property were torn out. He has had better luck in Oakland where the city’s sunnier attitude towards tended gardens on public land have so far allowed his middle-of-the-road habitats to stand. The city has a long turned a blind eye to gardens on public lands, but city budget cuts have actually created a real need for public engagement in Oakland’s green spaces.

Brooke Levin is the assistant director of facilities and the environment within Oakland’s Public Works Agency. She says the city had to make some “pretty major staff reductions in 2008” which affected not only parks, but the greenery on streets, sidewalks and medians. The staff decreases slashed the acreage the department could maintain and the situation was made even worse by last July’s additional cuts. Her department sat down with the parks department’s director “to put our heads together and come up with solutions,” she says.

The first thing they did was triage Oakland’s landscapes. They drew up a list of which green spaces were absolutely necessary to maintain and which would be allowed to fallow. The places the city decided to preserve, Levin says, “included playing fields, areas where the city had invested in capital improvements within the last five years, the grounds of city-owned buildings and parks and recreation facilities.”

The total number of absolutely essential grounds came to approximately 112, leaving the puzzle of what to do with the remaining 200 locations. “We designated these as ‘No routine maintenance locations,’ which means that we’ll mow the ones that need to be mowed, but that’s it,” she says.  “We established some crews to deal with complaints, but they’re really only responding to complaints and really egregious situations.”

They developed signs requesting that volunteers help keep the area free of litter and graffiti. It also lists a complaint hot line. “We’re really hoping that neighborhoods will engage and support these locations,” she says. “But without money, that’s the best we can do.”

Public Works Sign at Broadway and Pleasant Valley

Snapp’s original project, the median at the corner of 40th and Opal, was not driven by budget cuts or a deep sense of civic responsibility. Instead he was motivated by “the free open space and the reality that no one cared about plants or crazy gardeners in medians.”

“I wanted to see what I could get away with,” he says. “This first median was to show people that diversity is possible in urban landscapes. Typically, when people plant in cities it’s in these big repeating patterns,” he says, leaning his head slightly forward while sharpening his gaze. He wants to make sure his meaning is understood. “That is not okay. Patterns like that are not biodiverse and they’re not good for bees,” he says.

Not all guerrilla gardeners are driven by the same motives as Snapp. In recent years, rogue planting has blossomed into an international phenomenon as groups from London, Zurich, New York, Berlin, Australia, Los Angeles and Oakland have planted daisies in newspaper boxes and crafted “seed-bombs” inside biodegradable cardboard grenades. The goals of these kinds of guerrilla gardeners range from rekindling an individual’s connection with city land to feeding the urban poor through food cultivation to, as “Anarkismo” puts it, “an effort to become independent from market economy.” Groups around the globe post videos, blogs and instruction manuals online chronicling their latest exploits or illustrating how to make a shoes that release seeds as a person walks.

While Snapp identifies as a guerrilla gardener, he is unlikely to make it to any meetings. He grows, he says, because he has to grow, because it’s the thing he loves and he does it completely outside any political organization. “I’m a Taurus with a Scorpio moon and a Scorpio rising,” he says by way of explanation. Then, to clarify: “That means I’m not a group person.” 

He is driven to “re-wild” sections of Oakland in a methodical and long-term way, not for idealistic reasons or even political ones. He is patiently developing a biodiversity corridor up and down 40th Street that will host native bees, hummingbirds and plants.  Each tree, bush and grass here is a step in that direction and, as such, contains both story and purpose.         IMG_1049

Snapp, in cascades of precise and descriptive language, outlines the purpose behind a few: The red-barked Catalina Ironwood at the west end of the median comes from the Channel Islands of Southern California where it adapted to strong Pacific winds. It shields the rest of the plant community from the diurnal winds blowing up 40th Street off the ocean. The long feathered tule grass grows along the banks of Central California rivers and helped to create the region’s ancient lush top soil. Here, tule grass might advance the soil building under layers of thick mulch. The Dr. Seuss-like proteas from South Africa and Australia survived previous global warming and   sulfuric rain events and, Snapp says, will likely live through the coming decades.

Snapp chose this particular median at 40th and Opal because it is close to his home, and because the sandy, gravelly soil structure lends itself to drought tolerant plants. He walks through the median very slowly, constantly in contact with the plants as he talks about them. “This pellergorium,” he says, his hands erupting in flutter, “is a scented geranium from South Africa and is an incredible bee attractor.” The plant is about five feet tall but otherwise looks like an ordinary potted geranium. “It’s the biodiversity of nectar sources and the distance between them that matters when creating a biodiversity corridor.”

He picks another leaf, this time off a round-leafed bush with vivid blue flowers, and crushes it between his thumb and forefinger before bringing it to his nose and inhaling the scent. “This one is a Ceonothus. It’s a California native that produces both resins and scented essential oils, when stressed by drought,” he says. “The scents released mean that they’re less likely to be eaten by deer and other browsers.”

He overflows with boyish exuberance as he moves from plant to plant and his talk is thick with information and Latin names. His words fly like seeds scattering and his quick blue eyes search the listener’s eyes to determine whether any have caught purchase. “Ceonothus is only one of many examples of herbaceous and woody plants that produce scent,” he says. “I’ve planted several here as examples of drought tolerant plants that also create a scent garden.”

Cars blow by. Then an ambulance with no siren, but lights on. A few school buses full of kids head home from school. Here, in the middle of the road with Frank Snapp, time slows down.  This median is on another timescale and, even though he is as energetic as a hive of bees, he’s also deeply attuned to the metronome of this place. As his words tumble out in rich waves, Snapp bends into the middle of the median, his thick fingers gingerly holding the seedpods of grasses and reeds as they bend in the late afternoon wind.

IMG_1114

Snapp squats on his haunches and picks up some material from an exposed area of his median. “The rubble and dirt substrate is a holdover of the Key cable car route that used to run all up and down 40th,” he says. In the first part of the twentieth century, the Key System followed 40th Street, crossed Howe Street and merged into Piedmont Avenue before the green and white streetcars were taken out of commission in 1948. “Everything has a past,” Snapp says. “I didn’t choose this median because it had that past, but I nearly choked when I found out.”

This immediate connection with the past seems appropriate. Snapp designs with past and future in mind, mingling grasses native to Oakland’s original oak and  grasslands with members of plant communities that used to inhabit more southerly climates. “Ecosystems,” he says, “are moving north due to global warming. Certain Southern California plants are already appropriate here. I don’t look forward to catastrophic warming, but I do look forward to planting Boojum and fero cactus.”

The median buzzes with bees, butterflies, moths and ants.  Snapp reaches down beneath the woodchip mulch and pulls out a small, leafy scabiosa flowering plant whose roots are covered in a white covering of mycorrhizae, signaling a healthy symbiotic relationship between roots and fungus that helps the plant absorb water and nutrients.

“I got this mulch from beneath a freeway overpass,” Snapp says, turning the plant over in his hands. “The freeway kept it dry so it stayed alive and this fungus is here due to the breakdown of the mulch.”

Mulch and hand watering, he says, are the key to gardening with nature and with community.  “I’m completely against irrigation systems,” he says. “You should water infrequently and deeply. You should water by hand because gardening shouldn’t be about beautification. It should be about biodiversity and developing a relationship to the plant.”

Snapp says his neighbors come out and help him hand water the median, an activity which has actually brought the neighborhood a bit closer. Yoav Tzur, a neighborhood resident and one of the median’s many plant donors, pulls his car over and has a brief conversation with Snapp before taking off again. Another man yells hello from the other side of the street.

“I have a neighbor who comes out and prunes the pear tree on the neighboring median,” Snapp says. “It’s not my median, and a pear tree is completely inappropriate, but she takes care of it and she waters it by hand.”

Brook Levin explains that maintenance is the key to plant-based civic engagement.  Guerrilla gardening, it seems, is loosely tolerated by the city if it comes with a long-term commitment. “We’re supportive of anything a community group can engage in and maintain,” she says. “Some people go out and plant and then call up the city to maintain it. Sometimes we can do that, but often we can’t. If you’re interested in planting in public areas, call us. Have a conversation with us.”

IMG_1091

The city, Snapp says, has never gotten in his way but he is aware that the situation could change. “It’s the support of the community and of vocal activists that ensure these gardens stay in place,” he says. But, for the most part, he says, he has been able to do his work unfettered.

“There was one time though towards the beginning of the median project when somebody stole my Euphorbia canariensis which was about three feet tall,” he says, referring to a cactus-like succulent. “I was upset, but eventually forgot all about it. Then, years later, after the rest of this had started to grow in, I came back and there it was! It just reappeared right in the middle of the median. I think whoever it was just realized what was happening here and brought it back.”

Snapp smiles for a bit and, for a little while at least, falls silent.

11 Comments

  1. Allan

    Great article! It is a shame that the city has plans to eliminate much of the planted median on 40th street between MLK and San Pablo in order to make way for bike lanes. The same medians that got planted recently by so many neighbors pitching in to do what the city of Oakland neglected to do for so long. Why can’t they eliminate a lane of traffic for bike lanes? So sad.

  2. shannon

    Hi Allan,

    Thanks for the response. I’d love to know more–would you mind sending me an email? If you click on my name at the top of the article it will go straight to email.

    Thanks for reading and posting!

  3. PATTY&ASHLEY

    Great article Shannon! it’s an unfortunate situation going on there.your article will educate the readers and hopefully provoke change.we look forward to more great articles.we love your attention to detail.

  4. Frank Snapp

    Dear Allan:

    NOTE: My response is predicated on the notion that the City really is planning to eliminate green space that our neighbors created on May 16, 2009 on 40th between MLK and San Pablo. However, whether or not they really are planning to do so, what is said below needs be said as surely the City will make these mistakes in the future, as they have in other respects in the past. We must make ourselves ready to resist.

    Allan, I didn’t know about this elimination of community installed greening by the City before your mention of it. Cars are the obstacles, not plants. There isn’t so much traffic on 40th, nor will their be with sane green development or with coming runaway global warming, that make such a move in any way necessary. Turning back neighborhood greening action is never the answer. You are correct that what is needed is to eliminate an auto traffic lane for the bike lane in this stretch.

    This circumstance, though at first depressing and disappointing, is a great opportunity to show our strength, and, therefore, to set a positive precedent that we will resist their ham handed treatment of our neighborhoods–particularly poorer working class neighborhoods, against the total insanity of having a tiny City planning commission allowed to trump the wisdom of 70+ super motivated and effective neighborhood volunteers who can always “do” more than they, the City Council–any City Council, can. Let the fact that it is YOU and others who installed several hundred yards of excellent greening motivate you and others to resist. The City complains that it “can’t” even now do the basics of what you and neighbors pay for. Why? Because it keeps giving away our tax dollars to already rich out-of-town developers, putting dollars into monumental debt service and then refuses to raise taxes on the truly rich at the top of our parasitic system for whatever reasons. Such reasons include refusal by the City of Oakland City Council to rally the people to undermine the California State Gann Act portion of Prop. 13, which prevent any California city from raising taxes on wealthy corporations and hoarding fat cats at the top of the system.

    My own class on guerilla gardening (10+ students plus a U.C. Berkeley Urban Anthropology Professor and myself) two weeks before the May 16, 2009 event, installed a much much smaller section in the same stretch of medians. Then boom! and I never saw this coming, your neighborhood did the magical, the absolutely amazing and inspiring event of May 16, 2009, which event really caused the amazing diverse greening that we all now enjoy between MLK and San Pablo! How dare the City even begin to think that they could eliminate that and not eliminate a traffic lane instead!

    It is not up to the City to unilaterally make the decision to undermine the revolutionary, brilliant, timely efforts of an entire neighborhood such as exists between MLK and San Pablo in our City. City Planning can not have any realistic mandate by comparison to alter the will of your neighbors, who are workers, the people who generate all value in favor of narrower hoarding interests whatever these may be. Aren’t we sick of this yet after 30+ years of Reaganomics budget cutting, tax cutting insanity? The City council are thugs in favor of their own loyalty to their own power to represent the wealthy and not us with endless excuses that they are “sharing the pain”. They forget who they ought to be serving and creating sensible solutions for–workers like all of us in these neighborhoods.

    This neighborhood would rise up to control small-time thugs robbing our homes, we must rise up to control the thugs on the City council who presume to know better than local neighbors what is best for their neighborhood and what is best for the future of any City. It is people like the neighbors who created the improvements in these medians who already have the power. You made that clear when you gorgeously and effectively greened several football field lengths of City space…in one day!

    This direct slap in the face against the great efforts of all those May 16th volunteers by the City cannot be tolerated without resistance. We can prevent their regressive misstep. My recommendation is to get all the people who worked on the medians to insist that these changes do not occur. Have every neighbor write and call their City Council member to show not their concern, but their rage at such an insult by the City against its citizens. Skip the mayor, he’s a total dud by virtue of position in the hierarchy and by his complete lack of effectiveness at this time in his career for whatever reasons–probably related to selling out as a scumbag lobbyist for so many years. Make a media event out of our resistance, or threaten to if there is the slightest hint that we will be ignored. Call the City out on it’s un-green unnecessary contradictions in this planned-for attack against you and your neighbors, and that’s what it is institutionalized or not, action to eliminate green you made for bike lanes. I can’t imagine a more perfect example of the ass backwards insanity of status quo hierarchies with their endless and aggregating propensity to generate more and more goofball mistakes. We can and must resist this Oakland City Council attack on an entire neighborhood.

    I’m certain that worse struggles between status quo powers that be in local and larger government are on the horizon. Might as well learn how to do something about it right now. What better opportunity? The City will define its position by its response to our displeasure. Call them out!

    Thank you very much for the heads up.

    FS

    • Judy Johnson

      There is a terrific project up here in Sonoma County. It’s a gardening/nursery work education program run by a guy named Rick Stern at the Sonoma County Jail. They teach prisoners how to work with plants and have some nice gardens from which they sell plants for WAY CHEAP. You have to make an appointment before going and they have limited hours and are a bit out of the way, but if you need lots of plants and have little money, GO THERE –oh, and take your used pots for them to recycle and any gardening books and tools you might want to donate to the program. 707-525-8310.

  5. Allan

    There is going to be a neighborhood meeting with the city about the issue soon. Hopefully they will be receptive to neighborhood input and ideas rather than just cater to AC Transit and the Mac Bart developers. As soon as a date is set for this meeting I will try to post it here. Everyones support is needed to help save the open green space. Again, it seems like it would make more sense to eliminate lanes of traffic to make way for bike lanes rather than eliminate green space to make way for more traffic.

  6. gem s

    Here’s the thing- even transit agencies don’t seem to understand that to get people out of their cars and onto buses and bikes you have to prioritize getting people out of their cars- that requires making car trips less fun. There will never be a shift to public transit from cars until bus riding is more appealing than sitting in traffic. Auto congestion is a good thing; it slows down traffic, which is safer for everybody on the street and good for merchants who could use the increased visibility. It’s good for the environment, as drivers respond by taking fewer unnecessary trips. Unfortunately much of transit planning in cities is still in knee-jerk 20th century mode, and when needed bike lanes or BRT are proposed, transit planners bend over backward to preserve the same amount of auto traffic (which is individual vehicles, not number of people moved) on those streets. Why get on the bus when you have a car sitting in your driveway and roadways are still prioritized for driving? Why ride a bike when even with a bike lane you have to contend with Oakland drivers zipping by at 40 MPH? Unfortunately, city governments are still more willing to subsidize and promote car travel even as they pay lip service to more sustainable options.

  7. allan

    Hi Neighbors!

    Please help us come together for an important upcoming community meeting!

    Jason Patton of the City of Oakland will present the city’s recommended development plans for 40th Street.

    The city has done a number of studies in preparation for installing bike lanes and making changes to the the traffic on 40th Street. To do so, their plans call for the removal of most of the central median on 40th Street – including the narrow sections with trees. To compensate for the removal of the median they are hoping to plant trees in the sidewalks along 40th Street.

    There is concern about the final look, feel, and function of 40th Street without a center landcaped divide – especially given that we worked so hard to landcape it as a community. Most of us want bike lanes but question how they plan to include bike lanes on such a fast and heavily traveled street. And many people are asking, “Why does the city have to remove the median?” Please come and ask questions and get answers to your questions!

    We are hoping for a good turn out of neighbors to show that the Longfellow neighborhood, and the larger North Oakland community in general, requires and deserves to be included in the development process.

    Come and express your opinions for what you want for 40th Street and provide them important feedback on their plans.

    Meeting Information:

    Tuesday, October 20th
    7 PM to 9 PM (please be on time)
    North Oakland Community Charter School
    1000 42nd Street @ Linden

    Please spread the word about this meeting: Pass out the enclosed flyer and invite your neighbors.

  8. Great post.

    Thanks

    MyCityLandscapers.com

  9. diana

    If they just got rid of the parking spaces they’re charging an arm and a leg for on 40th, there would be room for bike lanes! sheesh. I’m glad they’re considering lanes but not at the expense of the green median.

    I live on 40th and in fact was thinking of doing some guerilla gardening on the one near my building at Manila and 40th (taking out that weird ground-hugging shrub for example). But now I think I”ll wait and see…and try to make it to that meeting.

    Frank is awesome! Thank you for your dedication to your art and the community.
    Diana

  10. Marilyn

    Frank, thank you for beautifying the 40th street neighborhood! I’ve lived on 40th for 2 years now and appreciate the median garden! I also enjoy the hummingbirds and butterflies that feed on my nearby balcony – likely as your gardening first attracted them to our community.

    Thanks for all you do!
    Marilyn

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