Community Healing Gardens bridge the divide between new and old Venice
By Joe Piasecki
Grant Gottfurcht did something unusual when he bought a house in Venice’s rapidly evolving Oakwood neighborhood four years ago: He made a point of getting to know his neighbors. A lot of them.
Last summer that affability blossomed into something extraordinary.
With the help of friends and neighbors, Gottfurcht launched the grassroots Community Healing Gardens project as a way to increase local kids’ access to fresh organic produce and repair fraying neighborhood bonds in the process.
If you were wondering how all those large wooden planter boxes — 100 of them and counting — ended up along curbsides throughout much of Oakwood and beyond, that’s the work of Gottfurcht and his team of weekend green thumbs.
The first planter boxes appeared on June 13 not far from Gottfurcht’s home on 7th Avenue.
As more and more neighbors saw what he was doing and started lending a hand — including working-class Oakwood residents wary of gentrification’s increaing pressure on their lives — the footprint expanded to the six blocks of 7th between Brooks and Rose avenues. Then 6th, 5th and 4th avenues and so on all the way to Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
By season’s end, Community Healing Gardens volunteers were donating harvested vegetables to the Vera Davis Center foodbank and holding organic gardening workshops at public schools.
Gottfurcht, a former real estate agent and homebuilder who founded the Yoga Collective on Rose Avenue, initially did much of the work on his own — building and transporting the boxes, filling them with soil and seeds, watering them regularly —and at his own expense, eventually a five-figure tab.
But the project only took off because Gottfurcht wasn’t just another newcomer trying to change the neighborhood; he was the catalyst for neighborhood gardening parties that circumvented the socioeconomic barriers the area’s red-hot real estate market had raised between “new” and “old” Venice.
“I was sensitive to the changes in Oakwood over the years, how new money comes in and people who were already here have to adjust their lives to continue living here or move out,” said Gottfurcht, 41.
“When I moved here four years ago this place was completely different. It started to get heavily built up, with old homes being torn down for lot-to-lot development — big three-story houses popping up next to these little 1,000-square-foot bungalows. Just on my block I’ve seen at least 10 houses torn down for brand-new construction. I’ve seen my neighbors leave and developers and new buyers coming in,” he said.
“When I was the new guy on the block, the first thing I did was go and meet the neighbors,” Gottfurcht said. “But I saw a big disconnect between the new buyers and renters and the people who’d lived here for generations, born and raised.”
One of the people out there with Gottfurcht during that first Saturday planting was Nicole Landers, a Venice resident of eight years who specializes in marketing for nonprofits and sustainable brands. She cofounded Community Healing Gardens with Gottfurcht and has shepherded its transition to a registered nonprofit organization.
“We started by enrolling people in our wheelhouse: artists, business owners, yoga teachers, friends,” Landers said.
“But what I loved most was seeing families show up — families that had been here for generations as well as some of the newer families,” she said. “That cross-pollinated the conversation in a way I haven’t seen happen in Venice in a long time. We started getting requests: When’s the next planting? What’s this about?”
Those questions came not only from neighbors, but also the local business community.
Last month Todd Reed Jewelry and Tender Greens helped throw a party in the Venice Canals to raise funds and awareness to help keep the Community Healing Gardens project going.
Todd Reed likes the planter boxes but is also excited that the nonprofit has expanded its mission to include free nutrition and gardening workshops at L.A. public schools as well as support for school gardens.
“Fresh food is so important and they are helping kids learn to grow fruits and vegetables. The food they grow is used in their schools. It’s an amazing program to support,” Reed said.
Another big supporter is Venice architect David Hertz, an Oakwood resident.
“I participated in a planting and then sponsored one on our corner. It was a great experience. I got to meet our neighbors and give something back to the community in Oakwood, where there’s not always fresh produce available to kids,” said Hertz.
“So-called gentrification has been going on in Venice since the 1960s,” he said, “but there’s no question, especially in the Oakwood community, that there’s a lack of understanding and appreciation for the history and culture that exists here. Getting neighbors out on the street together only helps.”
Hertz recently installed an atmospheric water generator at his architecture office on Market Street. He plans to share that water with Gottfurcht and Landers to make sure they have an ecologically sustainable water source for years to come. The planter boxes already have thick layers of mulch to help conserve moisture.
Gottfurcht, who uses a barrel-and-hose set up in the bed of a pickup truck to water the gardens, hopes to eventually hand over planter box maintenance duties to locals.
“These boxes belong to everybody,” he said.
With El Niño providing a break from watering duties, the organization is shifting its focus back to Gottfurcht’s initial goal of getting healthy food in the hands of lower-income families by hosting workshops at a number of schools, many of them in South Los Angeles.
Landers, meanwhile, is working to ensure the nonprofit’s financial sustainability. In addition to applying for grants, she’s looking for more volunteers and locals willing to sponsor an existing planter box.
“Our table is open,” she said, “and anyone can take a seat.”
Visit communityhealinggardens.org for more information about how to get involved.