color photograph of about a dozen people standing the midground and background of a flourishing community garden, milling around wooden garden beds
(Courtesy of Keenan Hadley)

Things couldn’t have been going more fruitfully for the Compton Community Garden. Since 2013, the garden—founded by Compton native Dr. Sherridan Ross—has operated as a beloved and reliable blueprint for urban, regenerative gardening, feeding up to 100 families per week or up to 500 families at a single food drive. Through a handshake agreement, the landowner allowed the community garden to operate until he could sell it; he even had three of the 63 garden beds reserved for his own needs, where he would reap the benefits of their efforts. 

On April 1, Realty Group Advisors erected a “for sale” sign in front of the lot, upsetting residents who felt secure about their ongoing private-public relationship with the landowner. A few days later, a bid from a developer came in at $488,000, threatening the end of the only people-powered garden in Compton. 

Compton Community Garden acted quickly. By May 8 they raised almost $400,000 after a week of rallying and coalition-building, exceeding half of their $600,000 goal. The garden now awaits the seller’s decision on whether he will accept their bid and let them stay at 1317 S. Long Beach Boulevard.

Although no official decision has yet been made about the fate of the property, the City of Compton provided Prism with an official statement:

We are devastated to see the loss of the Compton Community Garden due to the sale of this private property. We recognize this community garden has been beneficial for our residents to grow local, fresh produce. We encourage the community to visit the following alternative options for community gardens in the City of Compton

  • Neighborhood Housing Services of Los Angeles County’s Community Garden: A USDA People’s Garden
  • Holyfield Organic Garden powered by Community Care located at the Youth Activities League”

Alternative options may exist, but the location is a pivotal component of the community garden, which is in a residential area with primarily apartment buildings. Volunteer Oscar Oliva, who lives down the street, worries about the lack of healthy food options that will be wrested away from his neighborhood. The closest Smart & Final and Walmart are about 2 miles away. There are liquor stores with limited produce on almost every block on the way to either of the mega chains. A 99 Cents Only Store is the closest nearby market, but its offerings can be inconsistent. Compton is considered a food desert due to its lack of access to high-quality food at affordable prices, which has led to one of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in Los Angeles—a staggering figure considering the city is home to a predominantly Black and Latinx population. 

Compton Community Garden’s lot had been available to purchase since 2013 as a part of a bundle deal. The seller, whom Ross wishes to keep anonymous, agreed to the garden being on the lot while he tried to field interest in this deal, which also included other lots on Long Beach Boulevard. After a decade with no bids coming to fruition, the seller put Compton Community Garden up for sale as an individual listing on April 1. 

Before residents could deliberate on next steps, the $488,000 bid came in. 

color photograph of a Black man facing a group of about 20 people sitting with their sides or backs to the camera in a community garden
(Courtesy of Keenan Hadley)

Lenin Garcia, the senior vice president of Realty Group Advisors and a realtor involved in selling the lot, declined to comment on the sale due to “backlash,” adding that “all we’re doing is doing our job.”

The abrupt developments expedited Ross’ plans for a second phase to urban gardening in Compton: obtaining city-owned land to build more community gardens.

“If we can set up community gardens on each vacant lot, the produce can go to any place that can hand out food for people,” he says. “That’s always been the premise that I set up gardens with.”

As a child growing up on Cliveden Avenue in Compton, Ross remembers every house on the block had three fruit trees growing in their yard. Home gardening was a common pastime among neighbors before rapid freeway development occurred. Bordered by the California State Route 91, Interstate 710, Interstate 105, and Interstate 110, Compton became subject to a network of freeways that intensified segregation and property destruction in the area, isolating it from healthy foodways. 

Now, as an elder who lives in the same house on Cliveden Avenue, Ross is one of the pioneers in regenerative gardening. The retired neurosurgeon helped build approximately 60 community gardens throughout Los Angeles County. Ross is now working on a motion for the mayor and city attorney to allocate public resources toward more green spaces, emphasizing the importance of community land ownership due to the precarity of operating on private land. 

“My vision has always been that this would be just a showplace garden so that all municipalities can see what could happen with vacant lots within their jurisdiction,” he said. 

As Ross nurtured this aspiration, a group of newly activated residents wandered into his flourishing project in 2021. Young and excited by the doctor’s principles, they used their social media savviness to raise awareness and increase volunteer membership. Jonathan Fajardo began to champion Ross’ thoughts on urban gardening. The North Long Beach native stepped in to join the garden board and attract more youth via cultural programming.

“Anybody can come eat and harvest and be a part of these communities, but they are expected to get their hands in the soil and be involved in that capacity as well with the intention of feeding our immediate community and educating them for free,” he said. “So the more diverse our communities, the more diverse our perspectives we engage in here, the more efficient and connected we are. We think that’s the next level of human civilization: becoming more empathetic, more connected. And we think that community gardens … can be that meeting ground.”

Beyond the material, Compton Community Garden’s inherent appeal has been a reliable site for enrichment. Oliva was witness to a decline in recreational resources and youth activities funded by the city, such as the public pool at the nearby Gonzales Park. A self-proclaimed former “doomer,” he remembers staying inside and feeling alone when he was younger.

“It would be very beneficial for literally everyone to have more of these [gardens],” he said. “We just need somewhere where people can just chill. There’s been nothing to do here.” 

Oliva showed up to Compton Community Garden on a rainy Wednesday last December after a friend sent him one of the group’s Instagram posts. That day he met Kushmir “Kush” Capers, the director of horticulture and community, who invited him in to talk about life by their garden shed. The countless interactions and friendships he’s since made keeps Oliva returning as an advocate for more safe spaces for young adults to grow. 

“It’s unfortunate for an adult male to be walking around by himself [in Compton]. People give you weird looks. I want a society where people trust a person who looks threatening,” Oliva said. “I feel like we need to familiarize ourselves with everyone around us to build a stronger community.” 

No matter Compton Community Garden’s fate, hope reverberates. Should they win with their bid, the board plans to use funds to turn the garden into a land trust that can be run by residents in the immediate neighborhood. If the bidding developer does preside, the garden will execute an exit plan to give the area advance notice and transport their garden beds to retain their harvests.

Either way, Fajardo believes in being a model through and through. 

“We hope we can be the framework and foundation for many other community gardens to organize, raise funds, find allies in other spaces, and start gardens everywhere,” he said.

Lisa Kwon is a writer and reporter born and based in Los Angeles, California.