**update on the Los Angles Community
“L.A. Should Cultivate This Rare Urban Seed“
By Robert Gottlieb and James
Rojas Robert Gottlieb is director of the Urban and Environmental Policy
Institute at Occidental
James Rojas is the chair of
the Latino Urban Forum.
March 23, 2004
Last week, a court
injunction kept alive an unusual idea in Los
Angeles: that urban property is worth more than its
value in dollar profits, that it can nourish the body, the mind and a sense of
The Superior Court allowed
about 350 families that had cultivated 14 acres at 41st and Alameda to keep on gardening ? at least until
they got a hearing on their suit for permanent control of the fruit trees,
vegetables and flowers, an oasis that has breathed life into an otherwise
desolate area of South Los Angeles for more than a decade.
The garden has a complicated
history. It was claimed by the city through eminent domain as the site of a
proposed waste incinerator in 1986. But the incinerator plan was shelved, and
over the years the property's original owner, Ralph Horowitz, sued to regain
it. The city settled in 2003, selling the site back to him for about what it
had paid more than a decade earlier. Now Horowitz wants to build warehouses on
the land. The gardeners, to whom L.A.
had lent the land, are fighting back.
Last week's injunction
essentially takes Los Angeles,
Horowitz and the gardeners back to square one. Still, for the gardeners, it was
a victory, a validation of what they'd built.
In fact, the garden is an
inspirational story ? about urban environmentalism, livable cities and the
creation of community. Under the auspices of the Los Angeles Food Bank, a group
of mostly Latino immigrants, with annual incomes of less than $20,000, built
what is now one of the most impressive community gardens in the nation.
The land, about the
equivalent of 14 football fields, was divvied up, tilled and fertilized. Narrow
pathways separate the plots; vines form canopies from one garden to the next;
birds and butterflies abound; the garden is a source of food, shade and
recreation, and police records show that it is essentially drug, gang and
On weekends, the garden
typically draws as many users as some city parks, and last year it was the site
of a one-day fair featuring 100 food and plant vendors, musicians and
folklorico dancers. According to gardener Rufina Juarez, "It's a place
where people come together and share their knowledge about farming the land in
hopes of building a better future for themselves and their children."
But how should we weigh the
gardeners' achievement against the prerogatives of the property owner and the
city? Can all sides win?
Yes. For starters, the land
should be rezoned as open space, a showcase for urban farming and recreation.
The city should help
Horowitz relocate. His attachment is not to this particular 14 acres but to his
planned warehouse development. City Council members already tried to find
another site suitable for the gardeners and came up empty. But potential sites
for warehouse development are more plentiful, and the city has the means to
find one, perhaps on land it already owns.
Finally, Los Angeles, famous for its deficit of parks
and greenbelts, should take this opportunity to establish a community-garden
and open-space policy for its urban core. It should explicitly recognize the
need for permanent gardens, rather than merely allowing them to occupy land not
being used in other ways.
Many of the mechanisms are
already in place. For instance, the city should expand its support of the new
Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, whose mission is to purchase land in the
city for open space. It should create tax incentive programs, set aside a
portion of vacant city land and require garden plots in city housing schemes.
It should establish goals: at least one community garden in every City Council
district, say, or in every neighborhood council jurisdiction.
The garden at 41st and Alameda ought to be not just preserved but
replicated. It's a very different kind of "urban renewal" project. It
has fed the poor and created community. The seed has been planted; all Los Angeles has to do is
keep it watered and then watch it grow.