Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Academy Award nominated documentary The Garden broke my heart. It is a story about my native city, my home, Los Angeles; about race, land, green space, jobs, backroom politics, and shady real estate deals centering around a bucolic 14 acre urban farm, the largest in the United States. The majority of farmers were Hispanic and organically grew crops to feed their families. Peaches, papayas, bananas, corn, cabbage, lettuce, root vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, edible cactus flourished under the care of the farmers.
After eleven years of working the huge vacant lot and turning it into an edible paradise, the farmers faced eviction because of hinky deal forged between the city and the land’s original owner. The farmers learn the ways of City Hall, of the legal system and face internal struggles as they work as a group to keep the community garden open on what was once to be the site of the huge waste-to-energy LANCER incinerator, successfully defeated by activist Juanita Tate in the mid-1980s.
After the Los Angeles riots, a 14 acre plot of land in South Central Los Angeles at 41st and Alameda–purchased by the city for approximately $5 million under eminent domain– was sold to the L.A. Harbor Department which in turned granted the land to the L.A. Regional Food Bank a under revocable permit. That parcel of land became the South Central Garden.
In 2001, Ralph Horowitz, a partner in former property owner Alameda-Barbara sued the City for breach of contract, for failure to honor the original right of repurchase. The City denied his claim.
Farmers tilled the land, growing their crops, blissful in their relationship to nature and their ability to put fresh food on their tables. But as the film begins in 2003, Horowitz somehow bought the land back from the City in a low-ball deal that was not made public and included the creation of a soccer field championed by Juanita Tate, a force behind another soccer field that took six years and $4.7 million to build (and had yet to open when Kennedy finished filming). Horowitz prepared to evict the farmers in order to build a warehouse and create jobs and another unwanted soccer field.
“We have four soccer fields,” says one farmer, “This is the only garden.” Some politicians, like (now mayor) Antonio Villaraigosa and councilman Tony Cardenas champion the farmers, while their own district councilwoman, Jan Perry says basically, sorry, there’s nothing she can do, though in fact she supported the deal with Horowitz and the unnecessary soccer field.
The garden’s tenants file a lawsuit, an injunction is granted, only to be overturned. Eventually Horowitz promises he will sell the land for over three times what he paid for it, as he has been paying the mortgage and property taxes during the two-year long legal battle (and I think, doesn’t believe they will raise the money). In the meantime, in-fighting begins between the farmers because some families have more parcels of land and are selling crops, which goes against the farm’s agreement with the food bank–a point brought up by Juanita Tate in her argument as to why the garden should be closed.
“Some people are selling what they grow. It’s all about money and it’s tax free money,” she says. (One of her sons in currently under indictment for fraud related to the building of the $4.7 million dollar soccer field.)
As the eviction day grows closer, celebrities show up to help raise funds and awareness, and thanks to the Annenberg Foundation, $16.2 million dollars, Horowitz’s asking price, is raised. But the landowner turns it down, saying it came too late, and besides he wouldn’t sell it to the farmers for $100 million, alleging anti-Semitic slurs.
The farmers stage a sit-in and are hauled away by the police as bulldozers begin ripping through their plots of land and carefully tilled crops. Devastating.
Today the some of the farmers have relocated to a 7.8 acre parcel of land donated by the city, sadly only 3 acres are currently available for farming an those are under high voltage wires. Many of the original farmers continue to grow their crops, bringing some to various farmers’ markets to help augment their income.
This movie crystallizes not only the LANCER incinerator fight and the fight for the garden, both of which I followed with rapt attention, but also issues of race, poverty, camaraderie, social justice, sleazy deals and corruption that are part and parcel of our urban environment–and were exposed by a huge piece of green space that stood out in the middle of the concrete city as beacon of hope.