As this is being written, the 14 acre South Central Farm on 41st street and Alameda is being bulldozed, the fences that separated the magnificent plots torn down, and an urban landscape that was in many ways truly magical will no longer be present at that site.
It was quite an urban garden, unusual in many ways. The farmers, all immigrants, from Mexico and other Latin American countries, had recently arrived in this country, a large majority having lived here less than five years, according to a survey of the gardeners that our Center for Food and Justice conducted in 2004. The survey also indicated that the vast majority of the gardeners, over 90% of those surveyed, identified such values as “feeling connected to the land when gardening,” “spending time with family and friends while gardening,” “sharing crops with others,” “teaching [their] children and grandchildren to garden,” and growing foods that were “healthier than many foods that [they could] buy.” They turned those values, that knowledge of how to make things grow in inhospitable environments, into a kind of urban plaza, a place that strengthened social networks, and, to use that much abused term, strengthened family values. The events of the past day underline the unfortunate premise that almost all land in a City like Los Angeles is essentially private and that even community gardens, temporary oases and community spaces, are still subject to the whims of the market.
What next? Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa held a news conference today and subsequently released a time line that identified what might have been but didn’t get pursued. As you can also see from the developer’s remarks from an AP telephone interview, there was probably nothing that would have saved the South Central Garden from his perspective. But…
This crisis forces us, those who support community gardens, public space, urban greening initiatives, and transformed environments, particularly in areas where such opportunities are scarce, to assert that there are ways to change the situation and that they need to be institutionalized as policy. They include creating linkages to create open space and community gardens as part of any housing development, much the way the arts are rightfully supported in L.A. and other communities. It means creatively using zoning laws, General Plans that provide an open space and community garden element, use of public foreclosed property in a more systematic way, extending the kind of initiative that is now happening with the mayor’s new plan for a smaller site, using eminent domain for these purposes when necessary, and creating mechanisms for purchase and management of property through community land trusts to be done systematically and on a citywide basis. We at CFJ will continue to pursue these ideas to influence the City and hopefully turn the act of bulldozing into an opportunity for action and the South Central Garden into a story of motivation and transformation.