Steve Costa

To Walk on Your Work

Recorded: December 16, 2014

When is a walk something special? When you "walk on your work", says Steve Costa. This video explains Steve's beginnings as community organizer and program manager with The Trust For Public Land. Steve's early work involved creating the very first land trusts and neighborhood parks and gardens in Oakland California.

Steve has spent the first 40 years of his career working with inner-city nonprofits but now co-owns the Point Reyes Bookstore in rural Point Reyes Station, California. Steve has been a Vista volunteer, an aide to Congressman Pete Stark, a program director for the Trust for Public Land and executive director of the City of Oakland’s strategic planning office. When working for The Trust for Public Land he was instrumental in developing communal gardens in downtown Oakland and other neighborhoods. Steve serves on the boards of the Tomales Bay Library Association, Point Reyes National Seashore Association, and is founder and co-chair of “Think Local First West Marin” a campaign encouraging people to shop locally.

He continues to pursue growing a communities in his latest endeavo. In the past his community work was typically in urban communities, but today he has enriched the small rural community of Point Reyes Station though the purchase of a bookstore in the heart of town. Steve says, “ Books serve as a catalyst for bringing people together.” With this in mind, Steve and his wife, Kate Levinson have created the Geography of Hope conference inviting people to come and spend time in West Marin interacting with creative minds. The conference has included a film festival and 10 public art installations, in addition to a range of inspirational speakers on peace, poetry and the environment.

Huey Johnson:   Steve Costa, Welcome.

Steve Costa:   It’s great to be here, Huey.

Huey Johnson:   Great to see you, gee.

Steve Costa:   Thanks for having me.

Huey Johnson:   You were always one of my very favorite people, our struggles together and the urban condition.

Steve Costa:   Thanks, and you’ve been an inspiration over the years.

Huey Johnson:   Well, one way or another we are fortunate to know each other.

Steve Costa:   Yeah.

Huey Johnson:   I remember the beginnings with TPL (the Trust for Public Land) and your experience in the urban community, which we knew nothing about and you directed us. Tell us about the beginnings of TPL (The Trust for Public Land).

Steve Costa:   Well just in terms of a little personal history, I grew up in San Leandro, the wilds of Alameda County [California] and went off to community college. Dropped out after my first year, became a Vista volunteer. Went off to the South Bronx and was trained by some of Saul Alinsky’s protégés as a community organizer. I came back to Oakland, and as my conscientious objection service I ended up working as a community organizer in East Oakland for a group of 11 Catholic and Protestant churches. So with that Vista experience and 3 years working in East Oakland, I got to know the city really well, and from there went to work for Congressman Pete Stark. And about 3 years into my work there, I got a call one afternoon from a representative from the Trust for Public Land. And they had been working with the Black Panther Party in trying to explore how land conservation could in fact become relevant to an urban setting. They raised the question as to wanting to get some fix on how many vacant lots there actually existed in East Oakland. So within a week, I gave John a call and said, “Well, there’s 1,200 vacant lots between Lake Meritt and the San Leandro border and I really am excited about this idea that you have of creating some kind of land conservation program in the neighborhood.” They said, “Why don’t – we’d like you to come over and talk to the founder and president of TPL.” So I came over and sat in your office, and I think it was within 30 minutes you had actually asked whether I’d consider trying to take this project on and serve as the initial coordinator of the program.

Steve Costa:   There was this big vision that you were bringing to the land conservation movement in which you really wanted to see how land conservation could in fact be, begin responding to the urban landscape and the urban setting. And the fact that there were this growing number of vacant lots appearing, not only in Oakland but in cities across the country, and wanting to see whether we can, we could begin demonstrating how we could convert many of those lots into parks and community gardens, and real assets.

Steve Costa:   So, I stepped up and we began looking at this data that we had generated, and looked at property owners. One thing that really struck and jumped out at us is that these savings and loan institutions had in fact foreclosed on properties, had demolished houses, and were sitting on close 150 of the 1,200 properties that were sitting there and we decided, “Well, let’s see whether we can come up with a strategy and convince these S & L’s basically to donate this land to us.” And so we began meeting with vice president’s of real estate and about 5 savings and loan institutions and were offered about 100 of those properties.

Steve Costa:   In retrospect, we should have probably accepted all the properties that were offered to us and put them into some kind of a land bank, but we created a policy at the time where we weren’t going to accept a property unless we could establish that there was real community interest. So that’s when the organized, the community organizing, really began kicking in. In which we began knocking on doors, encouraging people to come out to the particular lot that sat on their block, and said, “Are you all interested in working with us?” And so we got, I want to say 25, 25 to 30 neighborhoods basically willing to commit to working with us and creating what eventually became the first community gardens in Oakland. We converted many of the sites into gardens for local schools. We created many parks.

Steve Costa:   Other major piece of your vision was that we weren’t going to convey these properties as we traditionally did at TPL to some public agency. That we were going to create these land trusts and have the neighborhoods eventually own and control the land themselves. And so we eventually incorporated 7 neighborhood land trusts in Oakland, 501(C)3s; and at the point in which they were incorporated and the sites were improved, we conveyed this land to the people, to the neighborhoods. Those were some of the earliest urban land trusts that exist. I mean the land trust movement was not –

Huey Johnson:   Didn’t exist.

Steve Costa:   It didn’t exist back in the 70s, but the fact that here were the first land trusts, let alone urban land trusts in which inner city residents were owning, and controlling, and managing, and improving lots was really pretty remarkable. The power of being able to walk on your work, you know being able to go out to those vacant lots and see that I, along with others, played some role in helping sort of create this special place. To be able to walk on your work is so powerful and it changes one’s life and perspective on the world, and so it’s pretty special.