A human being without imagination is dead,” says Chuma Obiudu firmly. Obiudu — called “Dr. Chuma” by almost everyone — is his own best example. Standing in a garden enclosed by steel spikes on a gorgeous December morning, he has convinced a group of visitors that a muddy patch backed by a two-story brick wall is actually a stage upon which the citizens of Richmond, in all their amazing diversity, will soon prepare meals of fresh vegetables. The word “vegetable” sounds like ambrosia from his lips; hearing it, children perk up as if he were promising they’d momentarily be harvesting Gummi Bears. Short, lean, and intense, forty-eight-year-old Obiudu is a master of vision-spinning, and in just eighteen months he has woven an intricate, if unlikely, skein of promise, with the Richmond Community Garden at its center.
The crowd presses close, hanging on Obiudu’s lilting Nigerian accent as he takes them on a tour of the garden, set for its grand opening early in mid-April. A ten-foot-long shallow depression, now filled halfway with opaque brown water, will be a pond, he explains, where children will learn how to farm catfish and tilapia. A few fruit trees will teach the value of healthful food. A small arbor will be planted with rampant annual vines, forming, he explains as he waves his arms, a wilderness in the city: “All children need to know they can find wilderness anywhere,” he insists. “It is vital in an urban setting that children can find wilderness.”
Without the benefit of Obiudu’s imaginings, the Richmond Community Garden seems not only the antithesis of wilderness but a picture of blight. Surrounded by faceless brick buildings, kitty-corner from a weirdly Cape Cod-styled police substation, the fenced-off plot on the corner of Macdonald Avenue and Harbour Boulevard manages to look simultaneously vacant and sinister, like a prison yard gone to seed.
Despite the fact that it is dwarfed by such projects as a new transit village just up the street — 230 townhouses, a six-story parking garage with retail on the bottom, and a 30,000-square-foot performing arts center — or the city’s Main Street USA initiative, with its mission to glorify and protect the historical downtown, this unprepossessing piece of ground has become the psychic center of Richmond’s redevelopment plans. It’s the energy around the garden that is driving the Richmond of the present into a very different future.
“At first glance, you could dismiss the community garden,” says ecological artist Allen Green, who has overseen such gardens statewide. “It can’t grow enough food to matter; you could say it’s an insignificant trifle. But it’s in spaces like these that the experiment for another world will begin.”
Under the spell of its director, Dr. Chuma Obiudu, the garden combines performance, wellness, art, and the wonder of growing things in a peculiar alchemy that leaves everyone — from bureaucrats to school kids to storeowners — breathless. At a recent Main Street USA meeting, peopled with representatives from the arts community, HUD, the city’s Redevelopment Agency, and business owners, the garden came up again and again — even though Obiudu, who had locked himself out of his car, was absent for almost the entire meeting.
This was not how it used to be — and not who Dr. Chuma used to be, either. Born and educated in Nigeria, Obiudu went to Greece to earn a BS degree in urban horticulture, then came to the US for advanced training. He picked up a master’s degree at Cornell in environmental horticulture, a PhD at Oklahoma State in agricultural education, and just for kicks (or practicality), an MBA from Tulsa University.
It was not long ago when, one fall day, Obiudu rolled into Oakland, attracted by Jerry Brown’s campaign promises to engage the citizenry in the city’s planning process. “He wanted proposals from the public,” he remembers. This request fit perfectly with Obiudu’s bottom-up philosophy of development; he believes that meaningful growth can only happen with the full participation of all the stakeholders — in this case, citizens, planners, builders, architects, and neighborhood groups.
Under the aegis of the consulting firm he had set up in Oakland, Sustainable Management Consulting, Obiudu submitted a proposal for a study on how to make Lake Merritt more inviting. The idea was to provide residents with a living green space rather than what he calls “a large body of water staring blankly into concrete pavements and stressed by heavy motor traffic.” The proposal suggested turning Lakeshore into a one-way road and building a sound wall to separate traffic from the lakefront. Obiudu’s written English tends to the formal and old-fashioned; one can imagine the reaction of someone on the mayor’s staff reading sentences like these: “The dual carriageway around the Lake just immediate to it makes it inaccessible to relaxation and solitude. The continuous movement of heavy traffic around the Lake is very distracting, both to humankind and other animal life within the environment … It offers a thin benefit as against its massive capital investment and maintenance which does not translate to an equitable leisure space and solitude.”
Weeks later, having heard no response, Obiudu ran into Brown at a party and spouted his idea on the fly. Brown said he was interested and suggested Obiudu resend his proposal. When he did, he was told the proposal was good, but the money that could have funded the study had already been advanced to the Parks and Recreation Department. “I tried to meet with [Parks and Rec director] Harry Edwards, but he has no time. Then I was invited to come to proposal meetings where I was told if a consultant was hired, [he/she] probably would be from a big contractor who would do the work. Doing things in Oakland,” Obiudu sums up, “you have to climb a mountain.”
Richmond provided opportunity rather than obstacles — though it seems an unlikely birthplace for “another world” like the one Allen Green envisions. The Newark of the Bay Area, Richmond is a blue-collar factory town, defined by Chevron’s oil refinery. During World War II, the population mushroomed by a hundred thousand people as four Kaiser shipyards operated three shifts. The bustling downtown of the war years decayed quickly in the postwar era. For nearly half a century, Richmond has seemed the only boat too heavy to lift during the Bay Area’s economic swells.
Yet the city proved perfect for Obiudu’s bottom-up philosophy — Richmond has a legacy of community and neighborhood action, much of it involving green issues like creek restoration, clean air, and community health. Further, the city’s power structure is remarkably easy to break into — anyone who shows up at committees can participate, no matter where they live. “My sense is that people are very welcoming here,” says Allen Green. “There’s no bickering, no one-upsmanship. It’s the same way with the arts commission. They have the same open, generous spirit.”
Obiudu isn’t the only idealist to discover Richmond’s civic charms. During the past couple years, Richmond has collected a band of ex-Oakland visionaries and community service pros, refugees from Brown’s brand of top-down power politics. Says Obiudu simply, “You must find a place where they listen to your prayers.”
The person most responsible for bringing Obiudu to Richmond was Janet Johnson, who had taken on the job of coordinating Richmond’s Main Street project. Johnson had worked on Fruitvale’s Main Street initiative, and she suggested that Obiudu take a seat on several Main Street committees then forming. It wasn’t long before Obiudu was invited to see if he could revive a several-year-old downtown garden, which had been stagnating from lack of attention.
“The [downtown] garden had just sat there for a number of years,” says Johnson. “Chuma was bugged by the garden dying. He had the resources to revitalize it, and we had the funds to pay for it. Then he started talking to the arts people, and the performance people, and then he pulled in the schools. We’re thrilled with that. The garden gave him a place to have a voice.”
It was all the invitation Obiudu needed. He took off running, and he’s hardly stopped since. Oakland’s loss was Richmond’s gain, and, even more importantly, Obiudu found a platform from which he could mount his campaign to green everything — and everyone — in sight. He has strong views on child-raising, the schools, nutrition, Western medicine, architecture, community, you name it. His views are as old-fashioned — and as charming — as his English, and in Richmond he’s found a ready, if somewhat perplexed, audience.
“Can we go outside?” The moment the kids see Obiudu, they start bobbing about in their chairs, waving their arms, begging to go out. It’s an impressive demonstration, given that it’s a cold, windy day, and positively chilly on the exposed hillside setting of San Pablo’s Tara Hills Elementary School. The class, a conglomeration of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who are academically at risk, settles down after Dr. Chuma promises that yes, we’ll go out and plant some plants, but first we need to understand what we’re doing.
He starts off simply. “Why do we plant?”
The answers come fast and furious: “So the yard’ll look good.” “To eat.” “To attract butterflies.”
Obiudu: “Yes, yes, yes, but there is one more very important reason.” When nothing is forthcoming, he supplies it. “Because plants give us oxygen, the air that we breathe,” he explains.
“In a land without trees, you drop dead,” says one little girl solemnly.
Obiudu launches into an explanation about how we receive energy simply by walking on the earth, and how our immune systems are intricately tied to nature and to plants. The kids hang on every word, then participate in an active exchange about the meaning of “environment,” which they conclude is everything around them: water, soil, air, life, community, even their own body, which is integrated with all the rest. Suddenly the kids are looking at each other differently: We are all a part of each other. One boy strokes the class’s tiny white bunny, his eyes thoughtful as he follows the discussion.
“If we don’t drink water for a long time, what happens?” Obiudu asks.
“You die,” says another little girl.
Everyone quickly takes a sip from the squeeze water bottles set at the corner of each desk. Learning is thirsty work.
“And what about bad air?” Obiudu continues. “If environment is very dirty, people breathe bad air and then you get sick. If you breathe good air, then you can come to school everyday. Now we know what gardening is, what environment is, now we go outside.”
Tara Hills has recruited a group of institutional sponsors for its school garden, among them American Soil Products, Richmond’s Aquatic Outreach Institute, and Cal Fed Bank; A group of volunteers spent a November weekend clearing a large area and building raised beds. The kids are thrilled when the rabbit, with its little halter and leash, begins eating the grass just breaking through the ground; they alternate between watching her and planting six-packs of winter vegetables under Obiudu’s guidance.
In fact, Obiudu is guiding an entire community into a new, greener world. He’s the Pied Piper of health through gardening, and he refuses to pay attention to protocol or convention. Shortly after he arrived in Richmond, he began visiting area schools to evaluate how healthy they were. He was not pleased with what he found. “Everything is concrete, everything is hard. There is no nurturing, no compassion. All this mentally influences students’ ability to do well in class. There is no quietness or stillness; the school environment encourages aggression. They step on concrete, they do not step on earth, and that’s why their immune systems are so low. With all our money, we rank the highest in developed countries in degenerative diseases. Why? Because we live on concrete.”
Obiudu’s aim is to have a food-growing garden in every school in the district. “You can’t have real redevelopment without starting in the schools,” he says. “Many children come from broken homes. They need a place of comfort and leisure.” He wants cooking and nutrition classes alongside the gardening component, and he has a habit of dropping in on school nutritionists to suggest that organic vegetables be included in school lunches. He also shows up at the school gardens at least once or twice a month, just to talk to the people in charge. “Gardening the people,” he calls it, adding that every gardener knows an untended garden won’t grow.
You would expect that all of this could be irritating to hard-working, overbooked teachers and principals, not to mention the nutritionists. But Obiudu somehow manages to get them to drop their defenses. Says Cassie Scott, garden coordinator at North Richmond’s Verde Elementary School: “You don’t want to say no to him, you just want to open up and listen to what he has to say. His vision is so inclusive and wholistic, in how gardens can help sustain us in a more healthy way. I could see I had a lot to learn from him.”
Obiudu’s philosophy was formed during his childhood in Nigeria. “Where the rivers Niger and Benwe meet is my hometown,” he says. “I went to a Catholic boarding school. It was very disciplined, and every kid had a job. We got up at five in the morning seven days a week, and we had fifteen minutes to eat breakfast before inspection. Everything had to be clean; everything had to be perfect.
“The school was on thirty acres of land. There was a rabbitry, chickens, a garden. Each student had to not only do chores, but also take notes on the chores and on what he observed in nature. We were required to focus early, to choose what we do. Now I hear people say, ‘I don’t know what I really want.’ I hear people at age forty say this in America. That type of exposure in school helped align me with my goals. Too loose a structure, too many distractions, too little guidance, these do not allow people to focus.”
Obiudu’s father handled transportation contracts in Nigeria. Anyone transporting goods from one part of the country to another went through Obiudu senior. With the assistance of his father’s Greek associates, Obiudu went to Greece for his undergraduate work. Years later, after he’d finished an MBA, his parents asked him to come back home. By that point, he had married and had four young children; all of them joined him on a fifteen-year sojourn in the homeland.
Fluent in Greek, Obiudu became a consultant for Greek-run agricultural concerns. Part of his job was studying customer flow in A.G. Leventhis stores, the largest supermarket chain in Nigeria. Discovering that the chain’s customers were standing in line an average of thirty-five minutes, he instituted quick checkout lines as well as modernizing produce displays and scheduling refrigerated transportation for meat and vegetables. Although this was satisfying, his life was to change when he became an agricultural consultant for Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola gets much of its sugar from Nigeria, especially the northern part, so Obiudu was sent out into the field to sign up contract growers for maize and sugar cane. Socially conscious corporation execs told him to focus on the poor, not on wealthy landowners, so that people’s situations would change as a result of working with the company. If farmers didn’t hold a lease to the land they were farming, Obiudu was to help them get it; the company awarded scholarships and incentives to families. “This was the first time I worked with whole communities and family heads,” he says. “I had to train a lot of local farmers and business leaders. Coca-Cola wanted us to participate at the grassroots level.” It was a win-win proposition: Coca-Cola was assured a steady supply of sugar along with good PR, while Obiudu got his first induction into how to work within communities.
One of the communities Obiudu has selected in Richmond is the new Easter Hill low-income housing project. Working with HUD money, he will meet with community leaders, students, and families to instruct them in how to grow herbs and vegetables in their own small yards. On the last Saturday of each month, Obiudu helps plant one unit’s yards — there are thirty-four units in the complex of townhouses. “The aim is to help people be economically and mentally stable,” Obiudu explains. Though he is always ready for skepticism, most people he’s talked to have shown interest in the project. “They ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ ” he says. “They need to see money coming in.” Obiudu has asked HUD to set aside a room within the complex from which residents can sell or trade things among themselves: vegetables, fruits, crafts.
North Richmond’s Verde Elementary School has become a model of the sort of communal cooperation Chuma hopes to foster in other settings. The school services an impoverished, unincorporated area of the county, with the median family income under $10,000. Garden coordinator Cassie Scott came to Verde as a play therapy intern in 1994. One day in the spring of 1995, she noticed a woman with a hoe in the empty lot behind the school. The following day, a few women were working the soil. When Scott walked over to see what was happening, she saw sixteen Laotian women, all with hoes, moving in a line across the field. Scott helped these parents locate funding and form a small nonprofit, the Verde Partnership Garden. Scott began gardening there herself, and brought the kids out after school and at lunch. Today, the garden has become part of the school’s curriculum. Each child has garden time once a week and can also come into the garden, which is now much larger, for lunch and snacks. The older children have worked and played in the garden throughout their school career, and they love teaching the younger kids how to position potatoes and prepare the ground for seeding.
Scott says teachers tell her the garden is a great way to teach core subjects: mapmaking, measuring, fractions, reading. Obiudu will soon expand that curriculum further, as he plans to establish a healing herb garden at the school. “Kids are very interested in healing properties of plants,” Scott says. “If they see a plant heal a cut or help heal coughs, they see it as a magical thing.”
Verde’s garden illustrates something Obiudu would like to address throughout the city: although a substantial number of Verde’s children are African-American, almost all the parents involved in the Partnership Garden are Lao and Hispanic. He notes that while Lao and Hispanic parents gardened themselves as children, African-American kids may remember their grandparents gardening but not their parents. “Only one or two percent of blacks are involved,” he says. “They look at it as soiling their hands; ‘country.’ As a result, there’s a greater incidence of disease and not eating right.” Obiudu believes that most whites are also divorced from gardening: “They put in ornamental gardens and then hire Asians and Latinos to do their gardening for them.” This February, he and Scott are starting a four-part series of parents’ meetings that both hope will increase the participation of black parents in the garden.
It’s dangerous to make these generalizations, of course, especially in Richmond. The group that masterminded the restoration of Richmond’s section of Wildcat Creek, one of the first urban creek restorations in the United States (and perhaps the first community-initiated restoration), was and still is largely African-American. Not only did they fend off the culverting plans of the Army Corps of Engineers, they created a nonprofit that has shepherded several generations of teens to a politically aware adulthood.
That group, CYCLE, is one of the engines behind a sister project to Obiudu’s downtown garden, the Richmond Greenway. The Greenway is being built on a three-mile-long, abandoned railroad right-of-way that runs across the entire length of the city. Allen Green works on the Greenway project as well as with Obiudu on the community garden. “Imagine a city that has a green space running parallel with downtown for the entire length of the city,” Green says. “And we’re not talking about a lawn with a path. We’re going to have a botanical garden the whole length. Richmond will be the greenest city in the Bay Area — or maybe anywhere.”
Ironically, Green says, Richmond’s poverty may be its saving grace. “Any city that has a robust downtown, you can’t get near it with green space,” he points out. “Parks are generally not connected with everyday life; they’re isolated islands you have to drive to. Here we’re connecting downtown with green space.
“All this will take phenomenal amounts of cooperation, but my sense is that it’s very doable here. But we still have to operate within the system of monopoly capitalism. Chuma has to hustle so much more than if he were building a landing strip or a shopping mall. We are literally trying to create a different kind of world based on a different value system.”
Obiudu is caught in the middle between those differing values; as he talks about the need of low-income townhouse dwellers to see money coming in, there’s an ironic twinkle in his eye. “I have to do the work of three,” he says. “Sometimes I feel bad because I see cities giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to contractors and planners who have no sense of spirit or community or design. I want to bring everyone to the garden and so I offer music, art, and games to draw in teenagers, seniors, working people who need a space of quiet. No one has integrated all this before. With my work in the schools, people won’t have to come downtown to the community garden. We’ll come to your home, to your school, to your workplace.”
Says Allen Green, “Chuma has gone through extensive periods of questioning what he’s doing. Without his own extreme desire to be helpful, he would have given up. The reward is not in the usual sense. Building the web of relationships is like creating the human ecosystem as it should be. We’re like salmon swimming upstream — we’re a long ways from a positive relationship with our environment.”
“We must pass on our knowledge like passing a baton,” says Obiudu. He sees his mission as teaching people to look for healing “inside-out.” “People here have not embraced spiritual healing. The first environment we have to redesign is our own home. Homes must have quiet spaces for meditation and prayer. We need to look inward for our economic and spiritual development. First you have to know who you are, and then life has sense and direction.”
Meanwhile, Obiudu spends a big part of his time pounding the pavement for grants and donations. He’s had a lot of success: Richmond’s Annie’s Annuals has contributed both labor and plant materials to the community garden, and Magic Gardens plans to help coordinate a large volunteer effort this spring. Dropping in on school gardens, attending meetings with HUD and Richmond’s Department of Parks and Recreation and redevelopment officials, chatting up potential donors, and networking with arts and performance groups who might perform on the garden’s stage, Obiudu leads a chaotic life. Ceramic artist Ericka Clark Shaw, who is on the community garden’s board, admits that Obiudu’s wide-ranging activities on behalf of a greener Richmond sometimes “fractures his focus” on the community garden. “Little details get lost. But he’s the perfect person for the job, and I’ve heard nothing but appreciation that someone is in charge.”
Behind the community garden’s locked metal entry gate stands a too-massive arbor, financed by Chevron about five years ago. Its pillars are rusting; fingers of ugly orange streak down its concrete piers. Some of the piers are covered with a beautiful patchwork of brightly colored tiles illustrating poppies and native birds and butterflies. The tiles were salvaged from a trashed public art installation at the BART station up the street. Across a black plastic-covered path, a large metal container adorned with handmade masks is used to store tools and other garden equipment; it squats incongruously in front of fantastical murals painted on the two-story brick walls that form the garden’s backdrop. A cleared space near the container will be the site of a stage.
Sometimes Dr. Chuma’s urge to teach comes at the expense of aesthetics. A circle of jumbled rocks and peat moss at the entrance forces people to choose a direction, while unset flagstone in a path is meant to make people watch as their feet come into contact with the earth. Yet the garden is a work in progress, and once it’s open to the public, ideas and help are likely to come fast and furiously.
The masks and broken tiles illustrate the extremes of hope and hazard that accompany urban revitalization. Shaw, who teaches ceramics at Laney and Merritt colleges, works with many school districts as a visiting artist. Her passion is superintending large public arts projects with kids, from inception to execution. She was approached originally for garden entrance ideas, and she is the artist tiling the bases of the arbor’s stained cement piers. Shaw participated in the Richmond BART public art project, an experiment that proved disastrous for the art. Richmond school kids, together with Shaw, created tiles for the BART station as well as the masks and murals. But skateboarders smashed the tiles, and taggers spray-painted everything in sight.
“We took the whole thing down,” Shaw says. “The project was destroyed, and to me it was painful, a big middle finger to the people who made these tiles.” Shaw, on her own time, chiseled off 250 tiles, ground off the mortar, and pieced them back together as the brightly colored “jackets” for the arbor’s piers. The masks were also moved to the garden. “The day we put up the masks and tiles [at BART] there was vandalism, and it just continued,” Shaw says. “But the garden seems to be a sacred spot.”
Shaw has had plenty of experience with the nonsacred. “Richmond is one of the worst places in terms of tagging and destruction. It’s challenged me to create works of art that are as durable as possible.”
Perhaps the garden is sacred because it’s fenced. Most emblematic of the schisms between value systems is the garden’s forbidding fence. Says city staffer Janet Johnson, “I want the fence to come down. The garden doesn’t truly belong to the community unless it’s open. But we have to weigh keeping it open against keeping it safe.”
No one seriously advocates removing the fence, including Obiudu. His concern, as always, is that the garden be a healthy environment, which includes having a security person on hand whenever the garden is open. At first, those hours will be minimal — Obiudu envisions opening the garden from eleven until four on Tuesday through Friday, and Saturdays from ten until two. To Obiudu, the garden’s major function is to provide a lunch spot for shoppers and employees at downtown businesses. He has also talked to officials at Kaiser, a block away, about opening the garden to patients and employees. Shaw foresees little trouble from panhandlers and the homeless. “It’s locked up at night, and there aren’t a lot of resources downtown. Who do you panhandle from?”
All that could change if Janet Johnson and the Main Street USA committee members have their way. “The idea of Main Street is to restore historic downtowns with their small shops and sidewalk shopping,” says Johnson, who came to community redevelopment from a background in banking. “People are tired of going to malls. You walk into a mall, and you could be in Tucson or Little Rock, it wouldn’t matter. Shopping malls worked with suburban flight, but now people want to be downtown, to browse in little shops. Some of Richmond’s old buildings were knocked down in the ’70s, when the city was trying to attract people back in, but a lot of them are left. Our challenge is to recreate the bustling downtown that Richmond used to have.”
Although the garden rated only a one-sentence mention in the spring 2000 assessment report of the California Main Street program, it has become symbolic of Richmond’s new future. This month Obiudu received funding from the BEA FEW Foundation to construct a stage in the garden. With typical energy, he is planning music concerts as well as cooking/tasting events with regional dishes prepared by the city’s cooks. Johnson sees the garden as a way to draw strollers downtown from the Transit Village. Allen Green, meanwhile, wants to light the garden at night, and Main Street committee members have enthusiastically endorsed this plan, but he and Obiudu have even more extensive ideas: “We could use video projectors against the building walls. For instance, you could be talking to children in the street, and project their images and voices large-scale onto buildings. We could also design on the spot, let people design ideas onto the space itself.”
What everyone has in common, from the committee members to the school gardeners, from Shaw to Green, from Johnson to Obiudu, is a commitment to cooperative design and execution. Says Green, “The garden, the Greenway, the reclaiming of downtown, all of it has to be a product of a deep dialogue, not just something handed down from above. The way we build things now is top-down command with outside experts and sub-specialists doing their little piece without a sense of the whole. No one asks the carpenter if the building could have been configured to use solar or if the landscape could have been contoured to save water. We just get the bulldozer. It’s amazing to me how we have dumbed down the entire environment, from the biggest buildings to the smallest sidewalks. Now we have sick building syndrome and children in schools that look like prison camps.
“The modern urban context is so regulated that people are literally not allowed to alter the public environment. So here’s the community garden, which offers the chance to reconnect people to place in a creative relationship.”
Although Chuma Obiudu has moved far beyond his childhood experiences, his core belief — that nurturing plants helps children understand that they and their entire community require similar care — was built on his observations as a schoolboy. This in itself is revolutionary: in our culture, we act as if progress, both material and psychic, depends upon leaving the past behind. “Life is a commitment,” he argues. “You can’t throw overboard what you have already learned.”
If Obiudu the critic sees distracted, aggressive children who don’t eat right coupled with adults still searching for focus in their middle age, Obiudu the practical visionary has solutions: if a child is suspicious of healthful foods, “give them a tomato on bread. They know sandwiches.” His garden will also include permanent tile game tables (another of Shaw’s collaborative projects) at which teens and children will play with their elders, thus getting a dose of wisdom. “Children must be exposed to adults who will tell them stories,” says Obiudu. “My parents used to tell us a small story before we went to bed each night, a story that would instill creativity and excite our imaginations.”
Just as he visits the school gardens to cultivate the garden coordinators, Obiudu is cultivating the creative spirit in Richmond — a spirit that is vibrantly alive and hopeful.
“Gardening,” he says, “is so much bigger than a garden.”