Friday, November 30, 2012

Annette Young Smith leads the way

Ms. Annette did a lot of hand watering in the early days of the
Quesada Garden.  Picture courtesy of Liz Hafalia and the SF Chronicle.

Annette Young Smith lived on the 1700 block of Quesada Avenue when it was one of the roughest places in San Francisco, a place ruled by social isolation, fear and violence. While other residents watched through their windows, Annette began to introduce neighbors to one another, plant flowers here and there around the block, and spread a message of hope.

Ms. Annette is now well-known for co-founding the Quesada Gardens Initiative with Karl Paige and other neighbors who were attracted to their work. For years, she and Karl, who passed away in 2007, were the daily caretakers of an increasingly beautiful and safe place. Her first flowers have grown into a network of projects that have shifted a community’s focus from problems to possibilities. She remains the organization’s Board of Directors’ Chair and spiritual mentor.

Ms. Annette has lived in the Bayview over thirty years, never far from her mother, a brother and several sisters. She raised three children and many grandchildren in the neighborhood. She moved to the 1700 block of Quesada Avenue in 1997, across the street from her brother Woodrow Young, after a fire that could have taken her life spared her family but took the Bayview home they had been living in. Since 2000, she has lived on Palou Avenue, just a few blocks from her beloved Quesada Garden.

The block on Quesada, when she moved there, was ground zero for the neighborhood’s drug trade, and attracted people from throughout the neighborhood and Bay Area who lived with crime and substance abuse alongside residents who wished visitors would find another place. Cars lined up, as runners exchanged crack cocaine for cash, and drug users numbed themselves all along the block. Gambling, sex workers, abandoned vehicles and other symptoms of hard times proliferated. Police officers, who regularly cruised the block but seldom got out of their cars, warned concerned neighbors that they could not protect them from retaliation should they report crimes.

A median strip that runs up the middle of the block reflected the tough social challenges, as charming houses that spanned Victorian to contemporary eras lined up on either side as reminders that things had not always been so bad. When Ms. Annette found the median strip, it was as neglected as the people who used it. Grand palm trees, planted by neighbors decades before, shaded weeds, used needles and condoms, shell casings and worse. The smell of feces and urine was everywhere.

When Ms. Annette’s brother, Woodrow, or “Buck” as she calls him, dug for fishing worms on the median strip, leaving behind a hole in the ground, no one noticed or cared; no one except Ms. Annette who made of the hole a home for one of her potted plants. That was the first of countless plantings that drew on the love and knowledge of plants Ms. Annette traces to her upbringing in Alabama where hard work in her family’s cotton and peanut fields was expected. “I’m just a farmer’s daughter,” she often says when asked why she does what she does.

When the Quesada Garden began to stretch the full length of the block, Ms. Annette started peanut plants on the median strip that were, for a season, a major attraction for visitors who had never seen one. Those plants may best symbolize how Ms. Annette’s personal history merged with her vision for a more loving, safe and beautiful neighborhood.

Ms. Annette is a woman of faith who has always been active in her church. Famous for her hugs, she embraces anyone who comes by, and prays that God will bless them. Through such small but powerful acts, she sparked a movement of grassroots community building.

Ms. Annette has been widely recognized as a “Hidden Hero,” and has won a Jefferson Award for her work. She continues to be an active contributor to the changing Bayview community, and to the Quesada Gardens Initiative where her can-do spirit has generated 40,000 hours of volunteer work in the heart of the neighborhood.

Annette Young Smith’s actions have served to ground residents to the place they live, break through the fears and prejudices that kept neighbors isolated from one another, and started a new narrative about a historically great neighborhood restoring itself.

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