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From an eyesore to an eye-popping park

By: Mira Brody
September 12, 2014
George Martins vision turned Lydia Park from drug dealers comfort zone to source of neighborhood pride

Nestled in the far end of Rohnert Park’s L section is a park that was mostly neglected since its construction. Without a sports field or updated playground equipment, it was usually devoid of consistent traffic except maybe some late-night drug dealings. 

An empty lot, Lydia Park looks out over a span of Sonoma County hills and in the evening gives way to some beautiful sunsets – a tucked away gem local resident George Martin saw as an empty palate on which to grow something beautiful.

Martin began his idea of improving the park back when he moved to L section in 1998, hoping that some subtle landscape work and community involvement would scare away the unwanted business that he found occurred on a regular basis.


Taking back their area

“A bunch of us got together and said ‘no, not in my backyard,’” says Martin, who teamed up with neighbors Gay Deady and Michael Knappman. “So we’d sit out there and scare them away. When you have people present in an area, they don’t want to deal drugs, so they leave.”

After being connected to city staff by Theresa Lopez, a member of community outreach for St. Joseph’s Church, Martin got to planning a community garden concept. They allowed him to cultivate the land in the empty lots behind his house, helped put some irrigation in and donated any extra compost and woodchips that city had no use for. By 2008, they had a tractor out there, tilling the soil for the first time with donated money and time.

“I remember Rohnert Park back in the 90s…that was a very desolate corner of the city,” commented RP City Councilman Jake Mackenzie during a city council meeting in which Martin was recognized for his labor. “It was hidden away, and since that effort has started it has become a place where you can get away from the hustle and bustle and you can sit there on the bench and gaze out on what Sonoma County was at one time and still is.”

With the number of involved community members anywhere from 25-30 people a season, each person with a plot is asked to donate $25 to help with maintenance fees and they must work their section at least eight hours per growing season. They also forbid the use of chemicals or pesticides. 

Martin says they try to work around fees for those who cannot pay them.


Participation is the key

“It’s more about the participation than about the money,” he says. “My working in the park allowed other neighbors the option, the freedom and the feeling that they too could participate in maintaining the park without having to ask permission or be assigned a task. They took it upon themselves to become an active member in supporting our local community park.”

Although Martin welcomes anyone to join their efforts, one misconception of the community garden is that its open to the public. Many strolling through the park feel free to pick other’s hard work for themselves, which is not its purpose. There is sometimes a box of produce where gardeners will gather bounty they do not want, but the plots are otherwise off-limits to passersby. Many times different plot owners will trade their harvest.

One thing Martin has noticed is as they grow comfortable with their plot, gardeners will branch out, growing year-round instead of primarily during summer, and mixing different species of fruit; just this spring someone produced a cross between a blueberry and a tomato.

“I feel part of that is people are a little more comfortable with their planting skills and learning along the way,” comments Martin. “We’re also seeing some really unique veggies that are appearing, as they feel more comfortable to explore, they mix.”

He comments on the unique microclimate one experiences in Rohnert Park; the cool breeze and fog that moves in during the evening provides growing conditions that are impossible a mere mile away.


Flowers and veggies

“It is also beautiful to look at everyone’s harvests, and many people have planted flowers amongst their veggies,” says Deady. “As the produce grew and attracted attention, more people were interested and we always have a waiting list.  We have 29 plots and 20 households involved now.”

He remarks on the amount of support and education provided by the city, including Public Safety Director Brian Masterson and Tom Kelley and John McArthur of the Public Works Department. Neighbors Ray Robinson and Gerry Vandeweg help control weeds and grass during the season as well. 

“Community gardens are great for bringing neighbors and communities together,” says Michael Knappman. “It allows for networking with others and establishing relationships that are sometimes difficult to start in suburban neighborhoods. 

“It's an opportunity for connecting to the land. There is a lot that has been written about community gardens contributing to personal health and the health of a community as well.”


Link on the food chain

The setting of Lydia Community Garden is unique not only for the landscape and open space, but as a representation of our own food chain. The cows, owned by Farmer John in the adjacent field, come and go as the years pass.

“It’s really important for people to see where their food comes from,” says Martin, noting that many people are unaware of how much labor it takes. “I used to name the cows before I realized they were part of the food chain. He raises them and gives the food to his kids. When it comes time, he processes the cow right there in the field.”

Apart from producing their own food, the small once-ignored plot of land is now bustling with life and has brought the local community together over a common goal. It has become a park where people participate in their own sort of way.

“I feel so lucky to not only have this garden, but for all of the new and wonderful friends I have met there, whether they are passing by and we chat, or if they have a plot there,” says Deady. 

Next time you are out for a walk or bike ride, consider the last little corner before incorporated land gives way to open space, where cows roam and fruits and veggies grow in abundance due to the care and labor of the surrounding neighbors.