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Los Angeles, CA: More on Embattled South Central Farms

  • Subject: [cg] Los Angeles, CA: More on Embattled South Central Farms
  • From: adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Wed, 05 Apr 2006 13:16:31 -0400

L.A. Urban Farmers Fight for Community Garden
by Jessica Hoffmann
More than 300 families draw food from a garden in South Central that faces
seizure by a real-estate developer bent on converting it to commercial use,
unless the community can stop the takeover.
Los Angeles; Apr. 5 - Los Angeles authorities are threatening a community farm
with imminent destruction in a local struggle between social and environmental
values and individual property rights.
Last month, a representative from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
placed an eviction notice on the gate of the approximately 14-acre South
Central Farm in Los Angeles, presumed to be the largest urban community garden
in the United States. While the last thread of their legal case lingers in
court, keeping eviction at bay, farmer-organizers and their supporters are
engaged in round-the-clock political organizing to save the farm's 300-plus
survival gardens from replacement by a private warehouse.
Seated at a picnic table in the middle of the farm last December, Albert
Tlatoa mused, "If you were to be brought here blindfolded, you would guess
that you were miles and miles away from a city. But we're surrounded by
History of the South Central Farm:
The South Central Farm, where 19-year-old Tlatoa has been farming with his
parents since he was a child, sits in one of the most industrialized parts of
Los Angeles, in a neighborhood where the majority of residents are low-income
people of color.
Aerial views show the farm as an anomalous rectangle of green in the midst of
sprawling warehouses, railroad tracks, and roadways. In the middle of this
asphalt jungle, more than 300 farmers are cultivating plots, many of them
survival gardens.
"People grow real serious food here," Rufina Juarez, a volunteer elected
spokesperson for South Central Farmers Feeding Families, told The NewStandard
in a recent interview. "People are supplementing their vegetable and fruit
Indeed, there are few grocery stores in South Central L.A., an area with one
of the highest concentrations of impoverished residents county-wide. Further,
a 2002 report by the USC Center for Sustainable Cities notes that low-income
communities of color like South Central have Rextraordinarily low rates of
park resources and access.
"Why did this place turn out to be like this?" Juarez asks rhetorically. "We
do not have good access to food. We don't have spaces that our children feel
So community members addressed those problems head-on, creating a collective
garden that meets their needs for food and safe open space and sustaining it
for more than a decade.
Now their farm may be destroyed and replaced by a private warehouse.
The land on which the farm grows has been the site of a long and complicated
series of land-use and property-rights struggles. The City of Los Angeles used
eminent domain to seize the land from private owners in the mid-1980s for
development of a trash-to-energy incinerator. The then-majority
African-American community that lived near the site mobilized against the
incinerator project, demanding public hearings and a health-risk assessment.
In the face of an insistent grassroots environmental-justice movement, the
city abandoned the incinerator project.
In the two decades since, the city has sold the land from one department
(Public Works) to another (Harbor) and faced former property owner Ralph
Horowitz in a series of legal battles and negotiations regarding site
For years, the land sat unused, but in July 1994 the Harbor Department granted
a revocable permit to the LA Regional Food Bank - a private, nonprofit
organization housed across the street from the farm site that coordinates food
distribution to local charities - to temporarily occupy and use the site as a
community garden.
Tlatoa remembers when his family first started gardening at the site in the
late 1990s. "It was completely wasteland. Nothing actually grew here," he
said. "I remember my parents filling barrels and barrels of concrete and glass
and metals." Gardeners transformed the "wasteland" into a thriving 14-acre
Reflecting the changing demographics of South Central, the majority of farmers
there today are Latino/Mesoamerican, many of them immigrants from Mexico and
Central America who are cultivating heirloom plants from their homelands. Some
of the farmers live in the neighboring community, while others travel from
other parts of the county to cultivate their crops.
Rocio Cardozo began visiting the farm more than ten years ago after hearing
that farmers there were growing and selling plants native to her husband's
home state of Puebla, Mexico, that she had been unable to find in Southern
California stores. Three years ago, she and her husband established their own
plot at the farm, where they grow radishes as well as traditional Mesoamerican
plants such as the purple-flowered alache and a calcium-rich legume known as
chipilmn, for themselves and their extended family.
In addition to cultivating their individual plots, farmers have established a
democratic decision-making process based on the Mexican ejido system. Tlatoa
said: "The whole farm has 350 plots and is divided into 8 sections. Each
section has a captain, and I'm one of the captains." He explained a directly
democratic system whereby the captains gather the farmers and hold votes when
issues arise. "Everything's decided by vote," he said.
That includes political strategies for saving the farm, which became the
farmer-organizers' focus after L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo's office
agreed to sell the land back to former owner Ralph Horowitz in a 2003
closed-session settlement. In January 2004, the L.A. Regional Food Bank
received written notice from Horowitz that their revocable permit to occupy
the land would be terminated the following month.
Interviewed in December 2005, Horowitz was not specific about his intentions
for the site, which is zoned for light manufacturing. "My plans are
market-driven," he said. "When we get the property back, we're going to
determine what the viable use is depending on the market conditions, and we'll
do that. If someone was in need of a manufacturing plant or a warehouse, we'd
do that for them."
The farmers responded to notice of their imminent removal by suing the city,
insisting that the secret deal with Horowitz violated their rights. A judge
granted an injunction that allowed them to remain on the land until the legal
conflict was resolved. The case made it to the California Supreme Court last
fall, but the justices refused to hear it.
An eviction notice appeared on a farm gate on March 1. But eviction is being
stayed as a separate lawsuit filed by the farmers - claiming that the city's
secretive deal with Horowitz constitutes waste - moves through the courts.
Throughout all this, the farmers have been building a political movement to
save the farm. For two years, they have attended City Council meetings,
protested outside Horowitz's office, and raised public awareness about the
farm through a media campaign and high-profile events at the farm, including a
concert featuring popular musician Zack de la Rocha. For some farmers, this
has been a first experience of civic participation.
"There are families here that have never taken a role in terms of
participating anywhere," Juarez said, "and now they know how to go to City
Council, they know who their representatives are."
Conflicts Within Community
While the majority of farmers have participated in the political struggle to
save the farm, a small number who disagree with the political movement have
relocated to other community gardens.
But the conflict is not limited to the shifting alliances among
farmer-organizers, local politicians and property owner Horowitz. There is
increasing tension about the South Central Farm within the larger South
Central community.
Mark Williams, a board member of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los
Angeles, a community-based nonprofit that was central to the successful
struggle against placing a trash incinerator on this land two decades ago,
takes issue with the farmer-organizers' tactics. He told TNS, "It's important
to do the right thing in the right way, so even though we have a need for open
space, it would be shortsighted of us to ignore the owner's property rights in
order to get open space for our community."
Williams said he worries that a victory for the farmers would make it harder
for the South Central community to secure temporary land-use agreements from
property owners in the future.
"We don't have a lot of recreation space, and we want to encourage land owners
to let the community use property on an interim basis," Williams said. "We'll
never be able to get folks to allow folks to use their property on an interim
basis if they've got to go to court to get their property back." In the case
of the South Central Farm, though, it was the city - not a private property
owner - that granted the permit for temporary use of the land.
This is not the first time Concerned Citizens and the farmers have differed in
their views regarding the land. In the late 1990s, the L.A. City Council and
then-mayor Richard Riordan discussed turning the site into an industrial park
as part of a city program that aimed to encourage job-creating development in
high-unemployment areas. Concerned Citizens of South Central is listed in a
2001 report created for the mayor's office as endorsing the proposal for the
Lancer Industrial Park.
Fighting to Save the Farm
The farmer-organizers, however, are committed to their approach. "Everything
we've done has been against the current," said Tezozomoc, a volunteer elected
spokesperson for the farmers. "I think that the struggle is really to change
the perspective and the ideas about land use. . Can we make policy that is
within the realms of sustainability? Can we fit these ideas that accommodate
the needs of a community?"
Among the possible political solutions presently on the table is a proposal
supported by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to buy the land from Horowitz for
public community-garden use through the national nonprofit Trust for Public
Land, which would then turn the land over to a local steward. Negotiations
between the Trust for Public Land and Horowitz are currently in progress, but
the role of city government and the farmer-organizers in the negotiations or
how the outcome would affect the farmers remains unclear.
Tezozomoc expressed confidence that should the land be purchased by the Trust
for Public Land, the South Central Farmers would be involved in site
management. "It doesn't make sense not to have the farmers included," he said.
Representatives at the Trust for Public Land will not comment on the possible
future of the land while negotiations are under way. Tsilah Burman, executive
director of the L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust, told TNS, "There has been talk
that if [the land] was acquired, we might be the steward, but that's not
determined yet.S She emphasized that for now the focus is on acquiring the
land for public use: RIt's not time to be organizing or figuring out next
Williams of Concerned Citizens wonders why the Trust for Public Land has been
brought into the process. "They're doing something we're perfectly capable of
doing ourselves," he said. "We're here, we've been here. Our organization
started in that garden. We want to be part of the solution, but a solution
that includes active recreation, passive recreation, and garden space - not 14
acres of garden, half of it for folks who don't live in this community."
While negotiations and their last lawsuit move forward, farmers and allies are
camping out at the farm on 24-hour watch against a forced removal. For the
last several months, the farmers have organized several events each week,
including drum circles outside Horowitz's home; protests at City Council
meetings; visible contingents at anti-war and pro-immigrant-rights marches;
and panel talks and film screenings on peak oil, food security and other
issues that tie the specific case of the South Central Farm to global
movements for food security and sustainability.
The future of the South Central Farm may be determined at any moment.
) 2006 The NewStandard. All rights reserved. The NewStandard is a non-profit
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