I sat down to interview our neighbor Christine Mills this past Saturday morning at the site of Elysian Valley’s Jardin del Rio Community Garden. We settled under the shade of a trellis supporting climbing vegetables and with the sound of birds chirping in the background. The interview unfolds in between meeting and greeting “family ride cyclists” stopping by for a water break and to take in our beautiful garden.
Christine Mills Berry is one of three siblings born Catholic in Fresno, California to parents Rod and Tony Berry. Both her parents were educators. Her mom taught elementary school children and her dad high school history.
Growing up in Fresno was foggy in the winter and hard to have curly hair in a society of straight hair people, says Christine. Farrah Fawcett and feathered hair were in style during my high school years, says Christine. She remembers spending all morning trying to make her hair straight only to step out onto the foggy morning and see her hair curl back instantly. “I spent my entire teenage years trying to make my hair straight.”
Christine recalls a childhood full of happiness with her parent’s summer break spent traveling America by road pulling a tent trailer. “We saw every historical site, visited every baseball park and actually got to walk and explore the Native American Cliff Dwellings.” As a result, Christine has always had a sense of being in history.
Christine remembers being busy all the time. Active in theater, she wrote and directed plays for children, joined the swim club, debate and more. It was while in a play that one of the actors (a teacher at Fresno State University) brought her an application for admission to the theater Dept. She attended Fresno State University for a year, transferred to UC San Diego where she completed her undergraduate studies in theater and attained her graduate studies in performance art history at USC-years later.
Christine came to Elysian Valley in year 2010 having lived previously in Venice, Manhattan Beach, Topanga and Silver Lake. It was during her time in Silver Lake that she met her now husband William Mills who was always on a bike and owned property in Elysian Valley. Christine thought he was a “bike punk”, a “bike messenger”, and did not believe him to be a nurse. In addition to claiming to be a nurse, William claimed to have chickens in his back yard. Both proved true and it was the desire to see William’s chickens that drew Christine to Elysian Valley where she has remained since and now raises a family on Riverdale Ave. We were meant to be together, says Christine about her union with husband William.
Christine refers to theater as her fist love. She volunteers often, and most recently taught Dorris Place Elementary School children documentary film through the Arts Collective. Last year, she led a teaching session with Elysian Valley United’s continuation school students. Teaching for her is instinctive and a passion passed on from her parents.
Today, she works from home as a documentary film maker/editor. For Christine, working from home is a blessing. It allows her to be a hands on full time mom. “It is difficult to do but definitely worth the sacrifice.”
Christine is an active champion of Elysian Valley. She believes that underserved communities like ours that have had freeways built through have a right to not be afraid to make things better. We deserve the improvements while retaining what makes our community great. Good things should not be stopped because we are afraid of change that may in fact be healthy change for everyone, says Christine. It is in this spirit that Christine volunteers her time and skills to help alongside other community members bring attention to the most basic needs in EV.
Injustice makes me crazy, says Christine. “I’m driven by a sense of right and wrong and how Metrolink operates is a perfect example of wrong as is the City’s failure to secure the safety of pedestrians on the greenway shared path and on Riverside Dr.” “I know the dangers from pollution and the great injustice is that the Metrolink Maintenance Yard facility would never be built today and most certainly never in Brentwood.”
Christine never doubts the need to be active and to try to bring positive change. The unfair burden on this community cannot exist without a fair balance of area service needs and wants (i.e. clean transportation, an area DASH bus line, safety on Riverside Dr. and on the Path). “It is not right that we have the pollution burden of Metrolink but don’t have a clean transportation DASH line to serve our community.” Christine believes that there needs to be a balance of the scale that compensates the bad with the good. I have a gut reaction to not stay quiet when I see something wrong, says Christine.
When discussing area “gentrification”, Christine, lovingly and with great relief laughs as she recalls a neighbor that she did not know previously, ask if she had gone back to her country. The previous owners of her house are believed to have been from England and clearly she was fitting the profile of a Britt. “I’ve been profiled as an immigrant from England”, exclaims Christine with joy. This Irish, Catholic, Jew from Fresno is assumed to be from England. “It made me feel so good, as I am very conscious about what gentrification can look like.”
Christine does not like the new development coming to our area that is privacy oriented, with people barricading themselves. This construction model frustrates her. “I enjoy the neighborhood more because I know more people from having an open yard, purposely accessible which allows me and my family to interact with people passing by our property.”
Christine, wishes new comers to the area would be more receptive to getting to know their neighbors. “It angers me to see people walk by me and not say hi nor respond to a friendly greeting.” She worries about the community becoming a “drive in and out commuter area” with the greater development underway. High traffic, and the dangers that come with that concern Christine as do people that are not invested in the place. She worries that residents don’t know the value of what they have in Elysian Valley and will be taken advantage by unscrupulous realtors. “People have tried to buy our house for a lot of money and we have said no”. Elysian Valley is home, says Christine.
I am so happy here, I love my neighborhood and it’s rich ethnic mix, says Christine. “I don’t think I’ll ever change our chain link fence which has the perfect chain link space hole to pass through a chicken egg to our neighbors.” We have met many people and neighbors from across our chain link fence, says Christine. She loves the scale of Elysian Valley. “It’s like a little break from the rest of the City.”
For Christine, Moses is her most proud accomplishment of the heart. Becoming an elected area delegate has too given her a different level of service accomplishment that she finds empowering in the midst of being angry and feeling disenfranchised. Christine finds peace knowing that she is doing all that she can.
Working in the garden, camping and being with her family make Christine happy. Her yard is finally coming together and she enjoys people stopping to see her plants and chickens. She humorously recalls a neighbor expressing how grateful he/she was that the people that were living there seven years ago and seemingly had the house looking haunted are no longer there.” “That was us”, recalls Christine telling the neighbor.
She is proud of her garden in progress and welcoming home. Doing all the work themselves and finding joy in said efforts. Christine would like to be remembered as a nice lady, concerned with the health of the neighborhood, as the old lady with the chicken coop, who left the world better with a healthy child and garden, was generous with her time and went out of her way to bring people together.
The following quote/poem, says Christine, best summarizes her life objective. “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better; whether be a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” — attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but originally written by a woman named Bessie Stanley who won a writing contest with it in 1905.