When Berkeley resident Allen Trachtenberg died in 2012, his wife, five adult children and son-in-law decided that they would honor him with a garden. His many grandchildren in the Bay Area agreed.
But not just any garden.
This would be a learning garden for the children of a Richmond charter elementary school where Allen and his wife, Mitzi, had been beloved volunteers — reading to the students and doling out hugs.
Fortunately, this was a family that was more than qualified to bring that idea to fruition.
One of the sons, David Trachtenberg, is a prominent Berkeley architect, while his triplet brother, Robert, is a landscape architect, and their triplet sister, Julie, is a landscape designer. Son-in-law Jeffrey Miller owns a landscape architecture firm that has built innovative public playgrounds and school gardens all over the Bay Area.
Another fortunate fit was that the founder of Richmond College Preparatory School, David Rosenthal, had helped shape a school that welcomed such ideas. The K-8 public charter school is in the heart of the Iron Triangle — the roughest part of Richmond, with a large percentage of low-income families.
“The idea was, if we could offer a healthy environment for kids from an early age, they could thrive as well as any middle-class kid from Berkeley or Marin,” said Rosenthal, a retired attorney who had a civil law practice in Richmond for 40 years. The school opened in 2004 with 20 pre-K students, and each year another grade was added as those students moved up. Today it serves about 550 students. There is a waiting list of 800, and it ranks No. 1 academically in Richmond, according to Rosenthal, now chairman of the board. The school’s program includes enrichment activities such as Mexican folk dance and a kids’ gospel choir.
So beloved was “Grandpa Allen,” as the children called Trachtenberg, that the gospel choir performed at his memorial service in Berkeley.
Before his passing, Trachtenberg had connected with Rosenthal over a foundational principle of their respective identities as Jews (and human beings): the necessity to respond to issues of social justice.
The Trachtenbergs had moved to California from Pennsylvania in 1970 after becoming active in the United Farm Workers union, originally organized by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Progressive political consciousness was as much a part of the family DNA as their curly hair.
So when Rosenthal approached the grieving Trachtenberg family with the idea of creating a school garden, they responded enthusiastically.
“They would call it Grandpa Allen’s Learning Garden to memorialize Allen and his spirit at the school, and at the same time to connect the children with nature and teach them about healthy food,” Rosenthal told J. “A lot of the folks here have roots in the South [of the United States] and have a cooking background. The idea of growing fruits and vegetables, tied in with the cultural background of the community, was appealing.”
As soon as the project was approved by the school, the family dove right in.
Miller drew up a plan with extensive input from David, Robert, Julie, and the school community. Miller’s wife, Amy Trachtenberg, a visual artist, designed the garden gateway, which now bears flowering vines and a string of Tibetan Buddhist flags.
The garden started as a bare lot outside the school building, where Richmond’s hardpan soil created some challenges. The Trachtenberg-Miller team brought in soil and tools, and built a watering system that included capturing rain from the school roof.
To help finance the project, they got donations from local nurseries and others, including Urban Adamah, the Jewish educational farm in Berkeley, which supplied edible plantings. The Richmond landscaping store American Soil and Stone provided soil and decomposed granite. An old chicken coop was restored and put to use.
Community work days included parents, grandparents and, of course, kids.
“Multiple generations of family participated in the development of the garden,” said Miller. “Also, many family friends pitched in.” Mitzi, Allen’s widow, who died just this month at 90, was always among the volunteers.
Robert Trachtenberg called it “a massive undertaking,” turning a “large, barren piece of land into an edible garden.”
The birth of the garden prompted the school to hire gardening teacher Sarah Greirson, who worked with the family to achieve a common vision.
“Students received instruction on how plants grow, how to take care of them, and the goodness of being an integral part of a garden,” school CEO Peppina Liano told J. Liano was among those approving the garden project and has seen the garden flourish.
After Greirson moved on, a new educator was hired, Urban Adamah fellow Zia Grossman-Vendrillo, who carries on the garden’s mission today, inviting explorations of basic nutrition, science, environmental awareness, art and writing.
“Every week I see Zia walking toward the garden with groups of excited students,” Liano said.
“Seeing the students eating the fruits and vegetables they planted is a sight to behold.”
“The kids love it,” Rosenthal said of the garden. “They have their plots, they tend to the chickens, they sow seeds, they go outside and pull weeds, and they play.”
The work continues on an annual basis with regular work parties that include the RCP community, the Trachtenberg family and friends, and anyone else who wants to join in. It is a legacy garden not only for the family, but for the community for which it was created.