This unsanctioned community garden is dividing a neighborhood on Salt Lake City’s west side

Founders of the Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden see it as a way to combat food insecurity. But some neighbors see it as a nuisance.

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Even on a chilly October afternoon that began as a frosty morning, Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden was humming with activity and alive with color.

A crew of college-age volunteers planted garlic in the cool soil. Sunflowers, calendula and marigolds popped with orange and yellow. A large mural of Margarita Satini, an activist for Utah’s Pacific Islander community who died this year of COVID-19, reigned over all, her head crowned with green leaves. A cat meowed, and bees buzzed from bloom to bloom.

The marigolds are special, said Tom King, a member of the collective that founded the community garden on a piece of public land on Salt Lake City’s west side. They were planted by 33-year-old Hali Vanderburg, who died of cancer in July.

Vanderburg loved nature, her mother wrote, so King and other volunteers were busy that October day planting a circular pollinator garden to honor her memory.

In King’s view, no bee, cat, sunflower or human is a separate entity.

“I’m part of the web of life on planet Earth,” said King, the collective’s project coordinator and de facto spokesperson. “And that’s the one community that’s the most important community for all the sub-communities. Because without the integral whole of the interdependent parts of all the different diversity of species, it crashes, and none of us will live.”

The Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden sits at a bend in the Jordan River Trail, at mile marker 40, just off the Chaz Court cul-de-sac. Organizers believe the Og-woi (pronounced “ogg-why”) garden can help address food insecurity by providing fresh produce and teaching people how to grow their own food, as well as build community and beautify the land.

But some neighbors have said the garden is attracting more homeless people and illegal activity to the Fairpark neighborhood and this stretch of the trail. Some also aren’t happy that King and the rest of the Og-woi collective didn’t seek approval from the city before beginning construction on the garden. Commenters online have accused King of flouting the rules and appropriating public land, arguing that the group didn’t give residents enough opportunity to comment on the project before it was established.

Guerrilla gardening

Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden began as six young trees planted on May 29, 2020.

King and the rest of the collective planted the garden on public land behind his house on Chaz Court without first seeking city approval as an act of “civil disobedience” and guerrilla gardening. At the time, the plot was a “weed patch,” as King has described it, interspersed with rocks and chunks of crumbly, black asphalt.

Acts of guerrilla gardening can be as small as tossing wildflower seeds into a vacant lot or as large as San Francisco’s Alemany Farm, which is now sanctioned by the city but started out unpermitted. The idea is to create green spaces by growing plants on land that the gardeners aren’t authorized to cultivate.

The Og-woi project came about through a partnership between multiple groups: Dirt 2 Table, founded by King; the Neighborhood Resiliency Initiative; the Utah Tar Sands Resistance; the SLC Revolutionary Collective; and Arm in Arm 4 Climate, according to Dirt2Table.org.

At the time, King was serving as chair of the Fairpark Community Council; his two-year term ended in April 2021.

The Og-woi garden does still have a few weeds. But it’s also now the site of several vegetable beds, flower beds, a small orchard and a wooden kiosk that’s used as a community bulletin board.

(Kolbie Peterson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A mural of community activist Margarita Satini is photographed at Og-woi People's Orchard and Garden on Friday, Oct. 15.

By the time the city became fully aware of the Og-woi garden, organizers had already built the kiosk and had been planting for months, enlisting volunteers and gathering support along the way, said Luke Allen, a spokesperson for the Salt Lake City Public Lands Department.

Usually, any party interested in putting a community garden in a public space would go through a lengthy approval process before planting could start.

First, they would contact the public lands department with their idea, Allen said. Next, the department would review the current use of the property, viability of community support, access to water and the scope of the garden, and also determine soil testing needs and the best sources of project funding.

Then would come the public engagement process, usually involving a survey.

Once funding is approved and released by city leadership, Allen said, design plans can be drawn up. Finally, a notarized agreement would be formed between the garden’s creators and the city.

According to the rules, construction can’t begin until the interested party has design plans, community support, funding and a notarized agreement, Allen said. The Og-woi collective didn’t go through any formal approval process with the city.

However, officials are trying to keep an open mind about the project and retroactively bring it under the purview of the city, Allen said. On Oct. 1, the city finished a public survey about the Og-woi garden as part of that project’s public engagement period.

As of mid-December, Og-woi is still technically unpermitted, operating without a signed agreement between organizers and the city, Allen confirmed in an email. Officials began the approval process with the group in August 2020, but that process is still ongoing, he said.

“Although no final decisions have been made, we’re currently exploring the possibility of allowing the garden to continue operating in some capacity while adding certain measures to help resolve the concerns that were raised by some residents,” Allen said in a Dec. 20 email. He said initial results from the public survey and conversations with stakeholders indicate that there’s “a lot of support” for the garden.

King said the collective is willing to go through the city’s approval process. But in his belief, the Og-woi group is further along than Allen described. King said he has communicated with various city employees who expressed interest in working toward an agreement between the collective and the city, and who also said the garden could remain operational in the meantime.

But Allen told The Salt Lake Tribune that those interactions don’t constitute final approval of the project.

‘We just look at it completely different’

Emma Batalla, who lives on Chaz Court, said the community garden has attracted so many homeless individuals camping along the riverbanks that she isn’t comfortable passing it to take her dogs to the dog park up the trail.

“Nobody feels safe walking over there,” Batalla said, adding that she wished the small easement that connects Chaz Court to the trail had a gate with a lock.

A woman who lives on Montgomery Street, just west of Chaz Court, also said homeless encampments were a problem and that she doesn’t want the garden in the neighborhood, virtually in residents’ backyards.

On a recent afternoon in December, a Tribune reporter observed four tents belonging to unsheltered people near the community garden: three just across the trail from the plot, and one on the other side of the river.

The clearing that the three tents were pitched in appeared to have had wood chips spread thickly on the ground. A sign nailed high in a tree read: “Notice: 24 hour video surveillance,” but no cameras were visible. Other than the tents, there was a barbecue grill, two shopping carts, a partially disassembled bike and the blackened remnants of a campfire.

Signs posted at the Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden explain to passersby that “og-woi” means “river” in the Shoshone language and that the name was chosen to acknowledge that the land the garden sits on was stolen from Indigenous people.

Darren Parry, a tribal councilman for the Northwestern Band of Shoshone, said Native Americans would think it’s good that the garden is attracting unsheltered people, because those are the people who need to be taken care of, he said.

“When we create a garden, I don’t create a garden for me and my family. I create a garden for the community,” Parry said. “And I am only as strong as the most vulnerable within that community. So we just look at it completely different.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brook Bernier has been critical of the Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden. She was photographed on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, near her home by the Jordan River.

Brook Bernier, who also lives on Montgomery, said she empathizes with homeless people. But she was alarmed when an encampment that appeared near the garden grew in the summer of 2020 to at least 150 people, she estimated.

Bernier said that unsheltered individuals were drawn to that spot not by the prospect of free produce, but by a water spigot and an extension cord in the garden, and that access to those utilities enabled illegal activity in the area.

King told The Tribune that he extended a water line from his house to the plot so volunteers could hook up a hose to it, and said he also ran an extension cord to the garden in order to plug in power tools.

Homeless people have been camping along that part of the river since at least 2013, he said, which is when he moved into his house. Operation Rio Grande, a 2017 effort to reduce lawlessness in the Rio Grande neighborhood that pushed many homeless people into Salt Lake City’s west side, caused the number of campsites to increase at least fourfold, King estimated.

“If one walks a mile in either direction, upriver or downriver from the location where the hose bib exists, they will find that a whole mile away, people haven’t even heard of the garden who are living in tents,” King said.

But he acknowledged that during the COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020, when the collective first established the garden, the number of homeless people staying nearby likely doubled.

When asked if homeless people camp at other community gardens in Salt Lake City, Allen said: “All of our city parks and open spaces are used by many city residents, including people who are unsheltered. And this area around Og-woi, or any of our other community gardens, I don’t think that they’re any different.”

Bernier and King have long disagreed about the garden. After Bernier posted comments online that were critical of the project, alleging that King’s actions were unlawful, and linked to the city’s survey, King filed a temporary civil stalking injunction against her in October.

King said he felt that Bernier had defamed his character and also endangered him and his family by pinning the garden’s location on Google Maps, thereby revealing where he lives. The judge revoked the injunction and dismissed the case in November, saying King hadn’t shown that Bernier’s conduct amounted to stalking.

What police call logs show

As the number of people camping along the river increased, so did crime and other problems in the neighborhood, Bernier and others have told The Tribune.

Batalla said her car was broken into and several items were stolen, including her purse. Bernier said she has seen unhoused people sleeping in the carport next door. A woman who seemed high refused to leave her elderly neighbor’s garage for hours, Bernier said.

But data from the Salt Lake City Police Department doesn’t indicate that there was a dramatic rise in illegal activity in the area — at least not in activity that was called in to police.

Through a public records request, The Tribune received police dispatch logs of calls for service made between Jan 1, 2019, and Oct. 7, 2021, by residents who live within a one-block radius of Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden. The call logs show complaints of possibly illegal activity mostly on Walnut Drive, Montgomery Street and Chaz Court, as well as the Jordan River Trail.

From the call logs, The Tribune pulled data for possible crimes or complaints regarding transients, suspicious vehicles or people, burglary and theft, possible drug deals, noise disturbances, shots fired, fights, trespassing and harassment.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

For two of these issues, the number of calls stayed mostly steady year to year. Calls made to report a trespasser went up from two in 2019 to three in 2020 and so far in 2021. Only one person called police about harassment in 2019 and 2021; two people called in 2020.

Calls about burglary and theft went down, from five in 2019 to three in 2020, then to one so far in 2021. Calls about noise disturbances also went down, then slightly increased, from nine in 2019, to three in 2020, then up to four so far in 2021.

Only one call was made to police regarding a possible drug deal, in June 2021. One call also reported gunshots in the time period reflected in this data, but that occurred before the garden was established.

The number of calls made to report fights did increase, from one in 2019 to four in 2020 and so far in 2021. Calls about suspicious people or vehicles have doubled so far in 2021, from three in 2019 and 2020.

The only obvious spike reflected in police call logs is a sharp increase in complaints about transients, which rose from zero in 2019, to 15 in 2020. From January 2021 to October, 18 calls were made to police about homeless people. The data also shows that calls about homeless individuals tend to peak in the summer.

Something ‘good and cool’

A man who lives on Chaz Court said he doesn’t mind the Og-woi garden, because before it went in, the plot of land was just dry weeds.

Izumi Okamura, who also lives on Chaz Court, said she believes King has good intentions, and said she’s happy the space is being used for something that’s “good and cool.”

The very concept of a community garden has been practiced by Indigenous people for thousands of years, Parry said. So by establishing the Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden on that particular spot, Parry said that King and the collective are returning that plot to the way it was, using it the same way that people who lived there before colonization did.

Long before Interstate 15 became the main route between the Salt Lake and Utah valleys, the Jordan River would have been a major travel corridor for Native tribes in the area, Parry said.

The river also was a source of food and medicinal plants for the hunter-gatherer Shoshone, he said.

When the Shoshone spent time at the Jordan River, they would’ve camped right where the Og-woi garden is, Parry said. “What [King is] doing is just really coming full circle.”

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Darren Parry, a tribal councilman of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone, said homeless people belong at Og-woi People's Orchard and Garden. He is pictured here, in 2016, beside a tree on U.S. Highway 91 where people have hung offerings to honor Native Americans who died in the 1863 Bear River Massacre.

Correction • Dec. 27, 1 p.m.: The story has been updated to correct the name of Utah Pacific Islander community activist Margarita Satini.