Frank Snapp and the not-so-secret guerrilla garden
on September 21, 2009
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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