I heard about the largest community garden in the United States, and of its scheduled bulldozing, in the same sentence. The next morning, an hour and a half south of Ventura, I was in the heart of Los Angeles at the South Central Farm. On May 26, I parked my car on 41st and Alameda Street. The continuous neat rows of vegetables and flowers behind the chainlink fence attested to hundreds of industrious gardeners, but the place seemed silent and deserted. I was afraid a forced eviction had already taken place in the night. Around the corner, I saw people patrolling the front gate. The typically open community area had been locked down to protect the major food source of over a thousand people.
Inside, I was welcomed by a tired but determined group of organizers, and soon put to work with the myriad of tasks required to protect 14 acres of farm in the middle of a city. The South Central Farm is a thriving patchwork of 360 garden plots cultivated with crops such as cabbage, banana, cactus, herbs and flowers. Ten of the plots are set aside for students and community space. The garden is tended and cooperatively run by 350 qualifying, low-income families and seniors, and the community members depend heavily on their small plots. One hundred additional families have their names on a waiting list, hoping a spot will open up for them.
This 14-acre oasis in South Central Los Angeles is flanked on three sides by miles of unbroken cement — a treeless, windowless, warehouse district littered with trash and carved by the dead concrete remains of the Los Angeles River. To the west side are the high-density neighborhoods of South Central.
Inside, the communication committee would build our small band to hundreds of volunteers in the upcoming days. Singers, actors and environmentalists such as Daryl Hannah and Julia Butterfly networked from the tree tops to lend their support to the cause. A steady stream of cameramen and women lugged heavy equipment along the earthen paths. At the end of the day and into the night, the ceaseless buzz of effort and energy focused its steady beam on saving the farm.
The farm’s humble birth was in 1992. After the Rodney King riots, Mayor Tom Bradley met with South Central residents and devised the community garden to help ease their poverty and disenfranchisement. The site was the city-owned, blighted remains of a torn-down warehouse. After a public ceremony and ribbon cutting, the local people were left to remove the trash, rubble and cement foundations by hand. A decade of labor and love later, a green, thriving bio-diversity known as the “lungs” of South Central had been created. The democratically run farm collective supplies healthy food and self-sufficiency to the poorest people. Families spend quality time together in the gardens. Cultural and religious events are held in the community space, and children learn about nature in a safe environment.
How could a place so self-sustaining, so inspirational, be in jeopardy?
The farm’s complications actually started in 1986, when the land was bought by eminent domain from Ralph Horowitz and partners (ABIC) for $4.7 million. The intended use was a trash incinerator, but public protest blocked the project. In 1991, a ruling stated that if the city determined the land was “surplus” (no longer needed for public use), it should be sold, with ABIC having right of first refusal. In 1995, after the land was established as a community garden, Horowitz entered into negotiation with the city to buy the property back. The City Council did not approve the sale and in 2002 Horowitz sued the city for not executing the purchase agreement. In 2003, the City Council, in a closed session, approved the sale to Horowitz for $4.5 million, minus 2.7 acres of the property to go toward a sports field. The community was informed that their garden had been sold to a private developer and that they would have to leave.
Since that time, the community garden members (South Central Farmers Feeding Families) have worked exhaustively to save the farm by bringing the case to court, working to purchase the property, and posting Web sites, videos and press events.
The national organization, Trust for Public Land, was brought in to help. In April, it negotiated a deal with the developer to buy back the farm for $16.5 million. The catch? The money had to be raised in 45 days. A miraculous $6.5 million was raised in a month and a half, over 80 percent by private donations. However, the eviction order was handed down on May 24 and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is reportedly working out the details of removing any resisting community members.
At this time, Horowitz has submitted a proposal to use the property for a cold storage warehouse, some guess for use by Wal-mart. Although Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa did not use his power of veto to protect the farm, his spokesperson says, “He knows how important it is for families to continue to grow food and have a relationship with the land,” and that he is continuing to look for more funding, and for an alternate location.
Farm members who attended a meeting about the new location were told that “the land is contaminated, so you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks before you can farm there.” The new locations being discussed are under high-voltage power lines. Jan Perry, city councilwoman for the district, who approved of the sale, could not be reached. L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, (who is rumored to have attended the original ribbon-cutting ceremony), has personally pledged $250,000 toward the purchase of the farm, in hopes, her spokesperson said, “…that others will step forward to raise the rest.”
So where does that leave the farm members? The current landowner has stated his willingness to sell. There is a hearing set for July to question the legitimacy of his ownership. Eviction papers have not yet been acted upon. State politicians, religious leaders and well-known performers continue to hold press events at the farm. Over 30 percent of the cost of the property has been raised, with more funds continuing to come in. Hundreds of people continue the vigil at the farm day and night. How many more phone calls, farm visitors, donations will it take to tip the scales and save the South Central Farm for good? Rosa of South Central asks this question: “If the farm isn’t saved, where will the people get their food? Where will the children play?”