Los Angeles; Apr. 5, 2006 – 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 Sheriffâ€™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 farmâ€™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 weâ€™re surrounded by factories."
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.
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 JuÃ¡rez, a volunteer elected spokesperson for South Central Farmers Feeding Families, told The NewStandard in a recent interview. "People are supplementing their vegetable and fruit intake."
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 Ã’extraordinarily low rates of park resources and access.
"Why did this place turn out to be like this?" JuÃ¡rez asks rhetorically. "We do not have good access to food. We donâ€™t have spaces that our children feel comfortable."
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 addition to cultivating their individual plots, farmers have established a democratic decision-making process based on the Mexican ejido system.
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 ownership.
For years, the land sat unused, but in July 1994 the Harbor Department granted a revocable permit to the LA Regional Food Bank â€“ a private, nonprofit organization housed across the street from the farm site that coordinates food distribution to local charities â€“ 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 farm.
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 husbandâ€™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 chipilÃn, for themselves and their extended family.
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.
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 Iâ€™m one of the captains." He explained a directly democratic system whereby the captains gather the farmers and hold votes when issues arise. "Everythingâ€™s decided by vote," he said.
That includes political strategies for saving the farm, which became the farmer-organizersâ€™ focus after L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadilloâ€™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, weâ€™re going to determine what the viable use is depending on the market conditions, and weâ€™ll do that. If someone was in need of a manufacturing plant or a warehouse, weâ€™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 â€“ claiming that the cityâ€™s secretive deal with Horowitz constitutes waste â€“ 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 Horowitzâ€™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," JuÃ¡rez 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-organizersâ€™ tactics. He told TNS, "Itâ€™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 ownerâ€™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 donâ€™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. "Weâ€™ll never be able to get folks to allow folks to use their property on an interim basis if theyâ€™ve got to go to court to get their property back." In the case of the South Central Farm, though, it was the city â€“ not a private property owner â€“ 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 mayorâ€™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 weâ€™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. â€¦ 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 doesnâ€™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 thatâ€™s not determined yet.Ã“ She emphasized that for now the focus is on acquiring the land for public use: Ã’Itâ€™s not time to be organizing or figuring out next steps.
Williams of Concerned Citizens wonders why the Trust for Public Land has been brought into the process. "Theyâ€™re doing something weâ€™re perfectly capable of doing ourselves," he said. "Weâ€™re here, weâ€™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 â€“ not 14 acres of garden, half of it for folks who donâ€™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 Horowitzâ€™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.