Where have all the flowers gone?

16 Jun 2006

At 41st and Alameda Streets in south Los Angeles you can find one of the largest urban gardens in America. Fourteen acres of once abandoned land have been cleaned up and transformed into flourishing gardens by more than 350 families of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Since 1992 they have been producing wholesome food from their small plots, relieving the strain on their often meager incomes. But in just a few hours-three or four days at the most-eviction and a cold stream of concrete could put an end to this striking initiative.

It is a straightforward story with a script familiar from the movies. There’s a rich and arrogant property speculator and there are the weak victims who unsuccessfully try to defend their rights and patch of land which supports them. And of course the nitpicking lawyers and grey institutions who in cases of doubt (can it just be psychological subjection?) always end up favoring the stronger party.

It all started with an expropriation for public use at the end of the 1980s when the City Council of Los Angeles decided to acquire the “Alameda” property, whose main owner was a company headed by Ralph Horowitz and Jacob Libaw, in order to construct a trash incinerator, which was in the end never built. Instead of the plant, the local authority decided to grant use of the land to the local food bank who would create a community garden for the many immigrant families from Central America. However, the local authority forgot to declare the area “for public use”, leaving the Alameda property company with a legal justification for regaining title over the property a few years later.

Since 2003 there has been a fight with no holds barred: on one side is the new landowner company and on the other the Spanish-speaking immigrants determined to defend what they have created. The legal battle, which has not been without suspicions of procedural irregularities and abuse, is drawing to a close at the present time and there does not appear to be much hope of saving the garden.

But it will not be easy to ignore the justified protests of the farmers, who have organized themselves into an association, South Central Farmers, and are attempting to raise funds to buy the land. Even if “justice” seems to have turned its back on them, the urban farmers of Los Angeles still have some good cards. The best is perhaps that they have been able to turn uncultivated waste land into a true communal asset of the city where they live. They are proud of the way they democratically manage the garden and have shrewdly developed good economic ventures. They boast good sales and distribution systems and regularly hold a large farmer’s market every month.

Apart from all shapes and sizes of corn and tomato, the market stalls offer a vast number of essential ingredients for Central American cuisine which cannot be found elsewhere. In an area that used to be degraded there are now recreational amenities of unquestionable social value and, in recognition of the traditions of their native countries, the farmers organize occasional festivals of Aztec dance and music, as well as lessons in Mexican cuisine given by teachers from all over Mexico.

The imaginative efforts to promote and defend the garden have certainly helped to attract the support of a wide range of people and associations from around the US (including Slow Food USA) in favor of South Central Farmers.

The classic movies with this sort of script always end up with the heroes doing the right thing, determined to throw their weight behind the weak so they can reverse what seems a likely negative outcome. In real life the last week has seen the actor Daryl Hannah, Convivium leader of Slow Food in Malibu, California, the environmentalist Julia Hill (who successfully opposed the felling of a sequoia by living in it for over two years), and Joan Baez, protagonist of many civil rights battles, united in events to defend the South Los Angeles urban garden. In the hope of a happy ending which is by no means expected, they are giving encouragement and support to the South Central Farmers.

First printed in La Stampa on May 28 2006

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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