Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Our Long Beach Story: Part 2

Note: This post is a continuation of a story we started a couple of weeks ago. Read the first part here.

Ben, Ryan and Hannah at the Chestnut Lot, Long Beach
The first stop was Gladys Farm, home of Long Beach enviro-celebrity Captain Charlie Moore. If you've ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you have Captain Charlie Moore to thank. He helped discover it in 2009, wrote the book "Plastic Ocean" and has been spearheading efforts to rid the world of plastic ever since.
These days, Charlie grows food at two Long Beach farms, but he hasn't forgotten about the Plastic Problem. Not only is he taking his boat and his researchers back out into the Pacific this year to check on the status of the floating patch of garbage, but he also has been experimenting with ways to eliminate plastic from his farming operations.
As we learned in Monterey, the amount of plastic used to grow certain crops can be staggering. Even home gardeners end up sending plastic to the landfill when they buy or start seedings in plastic pots or cells. Although some plastics are recyclable, it sometimes takes more energy to transport and make something new out of waste plastic than it did to produce the thing in the first place. Plastic is itself a petroleum product - so even if waste wasn't an issue, we will see a day eventually when producing new plastic will be come prohibitively expensive.

We parked on Gladys Road and met Charlie at the entrance to the tiny urban lot. The farm is as organized as the deck of a ship; no space is wasted. Charlie and his helpers are growing food for the TED Conference and some other local chefs who like "fancy stuff". That means purple carrots, green cauliflower, arugula and many other salad greens.
In the greenhouse, we noticed something unusual. Instead of the trays of plastic cells that you would normally see, the seeds were sprouting out of perfectly formed blocks of dirt with nothing holding them together. I asked Charlie about them, and he led us outside to a patch of concrete where he tossed a bucket of soil on the ground. With a special tool that looks like a complicated ice cube tray on a stick, he mixed water into the soil and pressed out a dozen blocks at a time.
Here's a video:

Before we left, Charlie and Ben got into a conversation about a place called Farm Lot 59. It was decided that Hannah and I should go there, and Charlie was about to call the owner and arrange our immediate visit when I felt the clock ticking and intervened.
"In the morning," I promised. We were only planning on riding a short distance the next day, so we would have time for a quick visit. At the moment, my brother was texting me, wondering whether he should start heading down to Long Beach.
"There's a couple of places near here you have to see, and then we'll go back," Ben said when we got back in the car.
"Cool," I told him. Mikki gave us tangerines from a cloth bag she had stashed somewhere. The car slid in and out of traffic and a few minutes later pulled into a full parking lot in a busy part of downtown. We hopped out to check out one of Long Beach's community gardens, another project of Captain Charlie Moore's that has been incredibly successful. Demand for garden plots is high, and the city has urban garden lots scattered throughout the neighborhoods.
This one, however, was well protected, and nobody was working in the garden to let us in. We peeked through the fence - wrought iron on the street side, prickly pear cactus and thorned trees called "Cat's Claw" on the parking lot side. It felt like a secret garden - one you would never notice if you were a downtown pedestrian in a hurry. We hopped back in the car before it got ticketed and took off again.
The next site was a drive-by: a strip of native plants put in by Foodscapes Long Beach, Ryan's non-profit. In order to conserve water, the city of Long Beach offers incentives to property owners to put in plants that can get by on the scant rainfall alone. As a result, native succulents and trees are making their way back into the concrete jungle, with the help of knowledgable landscapers like Ryan. We admired the plants from the car window, then headed back to the house in order to meet the man himself.

We came in the door and Ryan, a long-limbed guy with brown hair just long enough to go into a pony tail, greeted us with a toast. Not alcohol, but bread in the toaster oven, offered with a selection of vegan spreads. In addition to planting native and edible gardens through Foodscapes, Ryan helps organize Food Not Bombs Long Beach, a free weekly meal for the homeless or hungry. Whole Foods, a large natural foods grocery chain, donates their expired goods to Foodscapes for compost, but what's still edible goes to Food Not Bombs. What isn't eaten there ends up in Ryan's freezer - bread doesn't compost well anyway.

I took my toast outside to meet up with Michael, my long-lost half-brother. The front side of the Ryan/Ben/Mikki house stands out in the neighborhood just as much as the flourishing backyard. The steps are painted in a rainbow of colors, and the concrete flower beds are planted with spiky milk thistle and cactus. The vegetation is meant to discourage loiterers and property crime, and judging from the characters roaming the street here even in broad daylight, I could see that the residents of this house are definitely the odd guys out. Feeling the sudden paranoia of a small-town resident standing alone in a not-so-nice part of a big city, I was glad to see a tall, muscular, bald man walking down the sidewalk whom I recognized as a big brother.

In wealth I may be poor, but in big brothers I am rich. I have three of them, but only grew up with two. Michael and I last saw each other in 2000, when he came up to Oregon to visit. I was 13. Since then, we'd have brief conversations on the phone at Christmas, but hadn't had a good talk until I called a couple of weeks earlier to say I was coming down to the L.A. area. I'd naively encouraged Michael to ride the bus from his home in Azusa - in the valley east of L.A. - to Long Beach to meet up. Luckily, he was much more excited to see me than he was to take public transit. He drove his truck.
On the phone, I had mentioned my partner Hannah, but didn't follow up on this with words to the effect of "Hey, I'm out of the closet now, by the way." So when Michael walked into the kitchen, where Ben, Ryan, Mikki and Hannah were talking about sustainability in Los Angeles, we had a very awkward moment. It went something like this:
Michael: "And this is your friend, Hannah?"
Me: "Actually, she's my girlfriend."
Michael, Ryan, Ben, Mikki: [silence]
Hannah: "Yup."
Michael: "Oh... I wasn't aware..."
[more silence]

One of the things I will never figure out about being gay is when to let the cat out of the bag. It can create some strange moments. But as quickly as the moment went weird, it went normal again. We ate another slice of toast, drank some tea, and then the southern Californians donned their leather jackets to head outside for a visit to the Chestnut Lot, which was where Hannah and I had tried to make the work party that'd happened that morning.
As we walked down the alley, Ryan told us the story of the lot, which is located on Chestnut street and doesn't actually have any chestnut trees on it (they probably wouldn't do well in this climate anyway). It's owned by a church, and was formerly used as a garden but had been neglected for quite a while. Ryan now has an agreement with the church to grow food on the lot in exchange for a cut of whatever he might sell.

Michael, Hannah and I followed Ryan and Ben around the garden, admiring the massive avocados, the banana trees and the innovative garden bed designs.
Even though Ryan and his volunteers have only been working at the lot for less than a year, their dedication to bringing food to the urban landscape is evidenced by the makeshift mobile gardens that have wound up here. The urban farmers are also leaders in the Occupy Long Beach movement, and have used milk crates and shopping carts filled with dirt and bursting with growing veggies as placeholders in empty lots around the city.
Michael was impressed by the shopping carts. Having grown up in the city, he recognized the various models that represented the evolution of the American appetite - and waistline. The shopping carts ranged in size from about three feet long to more than five. Over the years, as our grocery stores have gotten larger, so have the carts. Maybe there's more than a correlation between the amount of food we buy, the amount we eat, and the amount that gets thrown away, as well. The Chestnut Lot, with its compost made from Whole Foods produce rejects and shopping carts filled with real, living food, is a testament to making lemons out of lemonade.

It was getting dark, so we parted ways with Ben and Ryan to have dinner with Michael. He drove us along Ocean Boulevard, a bustling zone of condos and retail establishments that once was simply a street of single-family homes, including the one I almost grew up in. To the west, out in the water, several oil rigs operate 24/7, just like the city. In fact, the one closest to shore actually has a facade that mimics a skyline, complete with colored lights. Most residents don't even think twice about the fact that buildings are fake, and the wells drilled from the rig actually extend right under Long Beach itself, like straws sucking all the petroleum out from under the concrete.
It was after five now, and we were getting more anxious about Bernadette, who we had planned to stay with that night. We could always go out to Azusa with Michael, but then we'd be sixty miles off our route. Ryan's apartment was too tiny to accommodate us, and there was nowhere to store our bicycles inside.
But then, miraculously, the phone rang.
"This is Bern."
"Bern as in Bernadette?"
"Oh thank God."

She apologized that the baby shower she'd been hosting for a friend ran a couple of hours late. She was happy to have us over after we'd eaten, and she had leftover baby shower wine. I forgave her instantly.

Dinner was Indian food at Natraj, in Long Beach's posh Second Street shopping district. Ten years ago, this street was one of the least appealing parts of Long Beach, but the city worked hard to encourage retail development. Now, on a Sunday night, it's jam-packed and fast-paced. Michael explained to us that much of the gang activity and crime that once made Long Beach unpopular has now moved inland, and parts of the city can now almost be described as "gentrified". In this anything-could-happen-stage, the potential of Long Beach feels electric and aspirational. If there were a city that could lure us away from Oregon, for an opportunity to be new-urban pioneers, this would be it - probably to my parents' chagrin.

We have a great dinner - my brother gets the chicken curry, Hannah and I load up on veggies - and try to catch each other up on our lives. Michael works for Pacific Gas and Electric as a smart meter maintenance tech. He is happily single and lives in the same house he grew up in, in Azusa. We couldn't be more different, but we feel comfortable around each other. We talk a little about his company's efforts to improve energy efficiency, and I give him a light scolding for using an electric dryer in a region that receives probably 364 days of sun. He teased me for riding in his truck when my mission was to ride my bike across the United States. Although we didn't talk about him much, the sarcastic banter was something we picked up from Dad, and we knew it.

Cynthia and Edith, our wheeled steeds, took no moral issue with riding in the back of Michael's pickup to Bern's house, and Hannah and I were also grateful to be off the dark streets. Long Beach lives up to its name in that it's a long city - wide, too - and more friendly to cars than bicycles. Bern lives out near California State University, and I navigated us there using the iPhone. Michael was a bit concerned.
"Let me get this straight. You've never met these people?"
I explained warmshowers.org, which is a site that connects touring cyclists with people willing to host them, usually cyclists who want to live vicariously through others who are out on the road. We raved about the incredible people we've met through the site, and how without their hospitality and local knowledge of the roads, this trip would have been a series of giant headaches.
We identified the house by the VW bus parked in the driveway and the "baby shower here" sign by the front door. Still a bit dubious, Michael pulled up to the neat suburban front yard and helped us unload our bikes. We said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. Then we turned and walked up to the house.
I rang the bell and was greeted by Griffith, a large friendly dog, and then by Bern, a petite woman close to our own age who came out onto the porch and hugged us. I gave Michael, who was still waiting in his truck to make sure we weren't going to be murdered, a thumbs-up and followed her into the house.

There was more than leftover wine from the baby shower. Giant paper pom-poms hung from the back porch; we piled them with plastic table cloths, signage and cellophane decorations in Bern's living room. Having signed up to host her friend's baby shower without really realizing what she was getting into, Bern needed some post-plastic-trauma counseling.
"They just pulled up in a minivan," she said, "and then they had all of this... stuff. It was like they bought the dollar store and brought it here."
Everything went into the garbage. Nothing was recyclable, nor was it re-usable - it's not like anyone wants a plastic sign that says "Shiela's baby shower!"
"What a waste," Bern said as she closed the lid of the full garbage can.
While in her garage, we noticed the extensive collection of bicycles and learned that Bern's partner, Shawn, happens to have worked for a bike shop for a number of years. Before they got together, Bern lived in her VW bus; now she works as a photographer and sailing instructor and is in the process of cycling the Pacific coast in sections, whenever she and Shawn can get away. She also headed the local cycling advocacy group for a while and helped write the policies that Long Beach is now trying to adopt in its push to become the "most bike-friendly city in America".
It didn't take us long to decide to stay an extra day. Bern's stories about the fight for cycling improvements in Long Beach were fascinating, we wanted plenty of time to visit Farm Lot 59 in the morning, and, to be perfectly honest, there was more wine here than we could drink in one evening.

The best thing about Warm Showers hosts is that they always know the best way to navigate the area by bicycle. In the morning, Bern drew us a map outlining the maze of roads we would take to get downtown without traveling on busy streets. It worked beautifully - some of the roads were even "bicycle corridors". Without our panniers on our bikes, we flew. It felt wonderful.
Ryan met us at a coffee shop downtown. Before heading to Farm Lot 59, we picked Ryan's brain for a rundown on Foodscapes Long Beach.
There are lots of 24-year-old kids who work landscaping jobs. There are also lots of 24-year-old kids who attend Occupy protests and have idealistic visions for the future. It's not many of them who manage to combine the two for a surprisingly practical and effective approach to effecting change in the realm of food security in a city like Long Beach.
Actually, Ryan doesn't have a landscaping job. He has a landscaping business. In an effort to reduce water consumption, the city has a program to reimburse property owners who re-landscape with native plants. Those property owners call Ryan, who happily removes sod and plants vegetation that has evolved to live in the desert climate. He also specializes in edible plants and landscaping with food.
Because he works on his own schedule, Ryan also has time to organize Food Not Bombs meals, play music, and entertain curious cyclists. His overarching goal, though, is to bring food security to the city.

"Ryan, can you define 'food security'?"
"Sure. I consider food to be a human right, and a food secure society to be one in which everyone is within walking distance to free food."
"Wow. That's pretty radical."
"It's possible."

Farm Lot 59 is in another far-flung corner of Long Beach, so Cynthia and Edith went into Ryan's truck bed and Hannah and I into the tiny cab. The five of us rode out of the residential zone and into the oil fields, bare hills crisscrossed with dirt roads and dotted with oil rigs. So distracted were we by the mesmerizing pivot of the arms pumping that precious liquid out of the ground that we barely noticed we had pulled up to a garden.
Farmer Sasha Kanno leased this acre of land from the city two years ago under the umbrella of her nonprofit, Long Beach Local. The goal is to become an educational farm fully incorporated into the city park that is being planned for the surrounding acres. As an educational farm, there's a little bit of everything - a little greenhouse, some chickens, some lettuce growing in raised tables, and several beds in the process of being turned over for spring planting. Daniel, a friend of Ryan's who volunteers at the farm regularly, was fully engrossed in the activity of pushing a gas-powered rototiller along one of the beds. It wasn't even noon, but the sun was already hot.
Daniel pointed to some of the challenges in running a farm on a single acre in a heavy oil drilling area. Not only were there space constraints, but they also had to consider that an oil pipeline runs diagonally across the lot. Dig in the wrong spot, and you could have a catastrophe on your hands.
Sasha, wearing a baseball cap and giant sunglasses, drove up and greeted us in a whisper. Her toddler was sleeping in the car. In between being a mom, running the farm, coordinating with the city and planning the next season's lineup of produce for the farm stand and CSA, she was pretty busy. Interestingly, she didn't see her urban farm as a step toward food security for Long Beach's 40% living below the poverty line. Her customers all come from a higher income bracket, and there's no way for her to lower her prices and keep her farm financially stable. The farm has a volunteer program where participants can work off a portion of the CSA cost, but people with families and full-time jobs aren't really interested. But the urban farm looks good in a city trying to improve its green image, and will make more sense out in this petroleum wasteland with a park to tuck itself into. We wish Sasha the best and hop into Ryan's truck to ride back downtown.

Joined by Daniel for lunch at Lola's (chicken with chocolate mole sauce) in yet another neighborhood of Long Beach, we talked about why what Sasha is doing to grow food for her customers is just as important as what Ryan does to put native and edible plants in everyone's front yard.
"Food insecurity affects everyone," he explained. "We live near a fault line. The grocery stores only carry three days of food." In that case, the 100-mile diet would be more than just a trend among the well-off.
"Money marginalizes food access, but disaster makes it irrelevant whether you're rich or poor."

Ryan's next project, which he is working on with Daniel, is to start a food co-op in Long Beach, a place where local growers could have an outlet for their goods and where those in the inner city could purchase fresh, healthful foods.
Ryan finished off his burrito, shook out and retied his pony tail, and put on his jacket. We walked with him to the truck and said goodbye. We had a feeling we'd be seeing him again, either leading the surviving band of humans after the apocalypse or on the cover of Time.

That night, Bern's neighbor Steve invited us over for a soak in the hot tub and organic chocolate chip cookies. We dug our swimsuits out of the bottom of our panniers and walked quickly down the cold sidewalk to his house with Shawn and Bern. The hot water felt amazing. Steve, who last Christmas played the most perfect Santa anyone had ever seen, explained to us that he had had serious heart trouble and completely changed his diet. Instead of the standard fried food and meat-heavy diet, he has been making green smoothies and baking with almond flour. When he'd moved into the house several years ago, he'd designed the backyard with swimming pool, bar and the hot tub - pretty standard suburban Californian. I asked him if he grew any of his own vegetables, and he admitted that if he could do it over, knowing what he's learned since his heart attack, he'd have put in a garden instead of a pool.

Will Long Beach have a heart attack - an earthquake, fire or flood - someday soon that has all its residents scrambling to use whatever open space they have to grow food? Or will it be a slower awakening, one that takes advantage of the idealism and connectedness of a younger generation to change the status quo? Captain Charlie Moore may not be able to send the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch toward Long Beach to alert its dollar-store-shopping citizens of the problem, but his books and lectures have made a big impact on and off line.

Soaking in the tub, Hannah and I begin to refocus our attention on the road ahead. Since we took an extra day here, we plan to get as close to San Diego as we can tomorrow. We're planning a 70-mile day - the farthest we'll have travelled in one day so far. We know the challenge is more mental than physical. If we can convince ourselves that we can do it, the rest will be easy.

In San Diego, I call my parents and describe what I saw in Long Beach. They get nostalgic about the city, describing it in the old days when it was really just another California beach town. Before the gangs and the developers moved in. Now, 26 years later, another wave is coming in. If people like Ryan and Bern have kids, will they want to stay in the city? It's too soon to tell.

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