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Community Pride Blooms in Oxnard

Gardens: Tenants boost spirits and public housing's image with a bounty of blossoms.

June 12, 2002|ELENA GAONA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first thing visitors notice at La Colonia Village, a public housing project in Oxnard, is the flowers.

There are brilliant orange orchids, baby pink gladiolas and deep red roses. Then there are the faint aromas, like the sweet smell of rosemary and the fragrant allure of jasmine.

The lively blooms and the lush gardens they sprout from are the proud handiwork of farm workers, retired seniors, single mothers and others who live at La Colonia Village and at 11 other public housing projects throughout the city.

They are all participants in a lawn beautification program launched five years ago by the Oxnard Housing Authority. The program was created to inspire pride in communities often considered unattractive or undesirable, housing officials said.

Participation has jumped to 80% of the city's more than 3,000 public housing residents since the program began. The authority holds an annual gardening contest and awards small cash prizes--ranging from $50 to $200. The winners of this year's contest will be announced today.

Officials see the program as an investment in the community. Residents say they till their lawns and gardens more out of respect for their neighborhood and each other than for the prizes.

"I've always liked having flowers, and while I live here, I have to make it as nice as possible," said tenant Juanita Cortez, 63, a retired farm worker. "A lot of people say, 'Why bother? It's not mine.' But you have to like where you live and make it look nice."

Besides, gardening keeps her active, and it makes her feel good when neighbors compliment her work, Cortez said.

She also finds it therapeutic. When she needs a pick-me-up, she enjoys working on her gladiolas, lilies and geraniums, she said.

Her biggest smiles come when neighbors occasionally stop by on Sunday afternoons to take family pictures in her garden.

As a little girl growing up in Mexico, Cortez said she picked flowers from her backyard and ran to give them to her mother. Now she picks them from her home in La Colonia and places them on her mother's grave in the city's Santa Clara Cemetery, she said.

"If I couldn't garden, I would get sad," Cortez said. "A house without flowers just isn't right."

Cortez lives near Eliza Court in La Colonia Village, where the lawn beautification program began. Since then, officials said, both the landscape and atmosphere of the neighborhood have improved.

"This used to be the most troubled street in public housing," said Melissa Mendez, the city's public housing manager. "We call it the domino effect because people are recognized for the good they do and it's contagious. Everybody started planting and picking up trash."

Francisco Moreno--affectionately known in La Colonia as "Don Panchito"--mows the lawns for his neighbors who are sick. Like most residents, he shows off his yard with obvious pride.

The front lawn is a deep patch of green accented with four palm trees. In the back, flaming red rose trees--a neighborhood favorite--and cactus plants line a chain-link fence and red brick tiles that Moreno laid down to give his sidewalk an extra splash of color.

"It's a shame it's not my house, because I remember we always had flowers at home growing up," he said. "But I have pride in being here."

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development leaves the decision of establishing such gardening programs to individual housing authorities, officials said. For Oxnard, the decision was easy, said Mary Gavia-Barajas, a supervisor with the Oxnard Housing Authority.

The flowers help lift spirits and improve the image of the community, "so people don't look at public housing as 'Oh, the projects,' " she said. "We want people to be excited about living here because they deserve it."

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