“You can do a lot more things if you know your neighbors. When everyone pulls together, it’s a safer community — it’s just one,big neighborhood watch.” — James Ross
James Ross has a motto he lives by: “If you don’t know your neighbors, you may live in fear. But get to know your neighbors and you become a community.”
Ross has been involved deeply in non-profit community building through community gardens in California and has returned recently to Danville. He shared several success stories to prove his theory.
A Danville native — he graduated from Danville High School where he ran track for Coach E.G. Plummer — Ross left Kentucky when he joined the Army at 17. He spent the next 30 years living on the other side of the country, beginning his civilian life in the San Francisco area, where he married his wife, Lisa, and raised five children.
It was in California where he became intrigued by two senior citizens, Carl Page and Annette Smith, who were voluntarily cleaning out the weeds and trash in the island of a block of Bayview Hunters Point, where his family lived. Ross eventually joined them in their clean-up attempts, along with other neighbors. Neighbors Page and Smith became founders of the project, christened Quesada Gardens Initiative.
“It took about three years to get the community to respect and give us their blessings for the work we were doing,” said Ross.
The project drew in as many as 25 residents of the block, plus countless volunteers who stopped by to help out on Saturdays.
The group held weekly meetings, and worked with local non-profits and city officials to begin the process of ridding their neighborhood of gangs, drug dealers, prostitutes and abandoned cars parked up and down the street. Bayview Hunters Point had no grocery stores that sold fresh produce on a regular basis — only liquor stores that sold junk food and cigarettes.
The group changed the neighborhood island from trash to flowers, and finally to vegetables. The food grown in this area was free to the people of the block.
During this time of getting to know the neighbors on their block, they discovered grant-writers, artists, farmers, a master gardener, teachers and a banker. They also found a newspaper and TV reporter who was able to publicize their work.
The group started a newsletter, “Footprints,” reporting local news of the community.
One end of this block was a cul-de-sac facing a large wall covered with vines and weeds. After cleaning off the wall, the group decided to have a mural painted reflecting the character of the neighborhood, with Ross and his aunt, Sarah Ross, pictured on the wall.
“It was a true honor to be in a mural with such great community leaders,” Ross said.
Through grants and donations, the group raised $25,000. A contest was held to select the artist, which culminated in two artists working together on the mural.
When it was completed, the wall became a meeting place for the neighborhood, featuring Halloween parties, barbecues, outdoor movie nights and dance performances.
Word of this project spread and the Quesada Gardens non-profit volunteer group was contacted by another neighborhood with a vacant lot called Bridgeview Gardens. The Quesada Gardens Initiative group offered its expertise and planning experience but required the Bridgeview citizens and volunteers to maintain the site. It became a community garden with vegetables and fruit trees as well as a teaching opportunity.
Again, the residents of this neighborhood were the recipients of food from this garden, which yielded more than 750 pounds of food by its third year.
By the time the Ross family left California, Quesada Gardens had sponsored 11 community gardens. It would assist in obtaining grants and finding other money sources as well as getting publicity for the projects. The applicants were required to give the location, how many persons on that block were interested, and what type of garden they wanted. Some wanted vegetables while others wanted flowers or a playground.
Several members of the Quesada group were given the opportunity to learn the basics of radio and television productions by the Bay Area Video Coalition.
As a result of this training, Ross hosted a radio show for two years and a TV show for four years, both with the title “Life on the Block.”
The next project of Quesada Gardens Initiative, called Bay Bloomloom, was to obtain a grant for backyard gardens in residential neighborhoods. Each garden was built to the homeowner’s specifications, whether a small enclosure for one tomato plant, a larger framed section for numerous vegetables, or a waist-high garden for senior citizens. While Ross was involved, with the help of college students from University of San Francisco engineering class and Stanford University, 24 of these backyard gardens were built and installed.
Since the Ross family returned to Danville to get reacquainted with their relatives, Ross has worked with the Housing Authority, Constitution Square kitchen herb gardens, Habitat for Humanity and the Danville Garden Club.
Ross also joined a group in Lexington, called Wild Ones, which features the history and cultivation of native plants.
Ross is exploring the possibilities of enhancing community building through community gardens in local areas using the same principles he learned in San Francisco.
“I’m working on bringing some families together to work in the herb garden at Constitution Square,” Ross said. “It’s not much different here (from San Francisco). Families still need to come together, teach kids how to get along with each other regardless of what the community’s problems are.”
Ross invites anyone interested in learning more about neighborhood gardening projects to contact him at
Visit www.youtube.com and search Quesada Gardens for
videos depicting the transition of the neighborhood areas that joined
in on the project.