A garden blooms on skid row

Times Staff Writer

It’s the smell you notice first: not the usual scent for this part of downtown, more accustomed to overflowing trash cans, sour urine and the stench of people who have spent too long sleeping on L.A.'s streets.

Instead, it’s sweet and green, with a tinge of lavender -- and it comes from the vegetable garden that residents of the Rainbow Apartments planted last week in a most unlikely place: attached to a cinder-block wall of a parking lot off San Julian Street in the heart of skid row.

The 34-foot-long vertical plot, which looks like a swath of green carpet against the cinder blocks, is filled with strawberries, tomatoes, basil and other herbs and vegetables. It’s a step up for the dozen or so members of the gardening group at the Rainbow Apartments, all formerly homeless, who have spent the two years since their building opened learning about the caprice of nature and the promise of its bounty.

The first time they tried planting vegetables, in a couple of wooden bins on the rooftop of their building, their novice status meant that plants weren’t watered and cared for properly.


“Everything died,” said Chris Owens, the group’s de facto leader.

The second time, things went better. Members of the group paid special attention to the sprouts they planted, watering and pruning with care. And under their vigilant tending, corn stalks pushed upward. Watermelons appeared on vines.

Many residents were surprised by the way gardening united them, in an area where it sometimes seems best to mind your own business and keep to yourself.

“It brings us together as a group, kind of like therapy, to see something growing and flourishing,” Jannie Burrows said.

“We’re trying to feed our bodies with better nutrients,” Lance Shaw said. “But more than anything, we like getting together.”

The modest initial success led the Rainbow group to the nonprofit Urban Farming, which helped the group install the green wall last week as part of its Food Chain project. Urban Farming also erected “edible” walls at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, the Miguel Contreras Learning Center and the Weingart Center.

The Food Chain project, said Urban Farming founder Taja Sevelle, enables residents in some of the city’s poorest areas to grow food in underused spaces at a time when food prices are soaring. The walls, she said, “get people to think outside the box. You can plant food in so many different places.”

As Owens and two other men struggled under the weight of planting grids filled with cucumbers, tomatillos and lavender, George Irwin, the president of Green Living Technologies, whose company manufactured and donated the system of planting grids, watched with a careful eye.


“Lift and slide,” Irwin told them as they carefully placed the grids onto brackets mounted on the wall. The plantings began above their heads, and vines and tendrils snaked down the wall. “One, two, three: good. Let it down.”

Sweating a bit as he took a break from lifting 51 panels into place, each filled with soil and plants, Owens stepped back and was impressed. “We’ve opened up a space we never would have had,” he said.

Rainbow resident Cenith Youngblood wiped the units with a white cloth, clearing away extra soil and organic matter. When she was done, she looked at the wall.

“It’s gorgeous,” Youngblood said. “I was trying to visualize what they meant by a green wall. Now it’s beautiful. I see cucumbers and strawberries, and what are these? Basil?”


No, she was told: peppers.

“Jalapenos! Oh, I love jalapenos!”

Owens said the group planned to be responsible for the pruning and harvesting of the garden walls. In the next few months, he said, they would evaluate whether the mix of plants worked for the residents.

“Everybody will have a say about what they want,” said Owens, who is partial to tomatoes because they are “very versatile.”


Regardless of what the bounty is, he said, they would share their crops with the building’s other residents.

“We try to share food with everyone,” he said. “We don’t like people taking it just for themselves.”

A few days after the installation, the Rainbow parking lot was quiet. Underscoring changes that have taken place on skid row in the last few years, San Julian Street, which once teemed with people and homeless encampments, was largely empty. The green wall, visible through a metal slatted fence, was barely noticed by most passersby.

But Wilber Geter paused for a moment outside the fence, and peered in. “Are those tomatoes?” he asked.


Geter, who had just collected his mail at the Volunteers of America Drop-In Center nearby, shook his head.

“Everybody’s got all kind of ideas,” he said. “I like that. They did a good job on that.”