By Elise McDonough
For more than 10 years, a lush oasis flourished in South Central Los Angeles, surrounded by warehouses and industry. An incredibly beautiful place, the 14-acre community garden known as South Central Farm hosted towering trees, cacti, tropical fruits, and innumerable vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Low-income residents tended it carefully, growing fresh food for more than 300 families. In "The Garden," a new documentary directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and nominated for an Academy Award, we see all too soon how the powers that be want to pave over this proverbial piece of paradise and put up a parking lot.
The Garden is primarily a courtroom drama, and activists and gardeners will identify immediately with the farmers in their struggles for ecological and economic sanity in a world gone crazy. The film focuses on threats of eviction from the site and the long, heated legal battle to keep the garden. (See the Ethicurean's June 26, 2006 post on South Central Farm.) As viewers, we're quickly immersed in the action, aided by skilled, spontaneous cinematography that lends a very authentic quality to the experience. Compelling stories unfold without the use of an outside narrator, since the people directly involved are the ones who propel the film from garden to courthouse, from rallies and protests to meetings with the mayor and city council people. Main characters emerge, unifying the farmers and teaching how to organize politically: Rufina Juarez, the farm leader; Deacon Alexander, an ex-Black Panther; and Dan Stormer, a civil rights lawyer. They are working against the interests of Jan Perry, the councilwoman for the 9th District; Ralph Horowitz, a developer and the site's original landowner; and Juanita Tate, a competing community organizer who hopes to profit from building a soccer field on the site.
The contention is over who owns the property. Originally, the land was seized from Horowitz by the city of L.A. under eminent domain to be used for a planned trash incinerator. Luckily, that toxic project was squelched due to opposition from African-American community activists. Horowitz sued the city, and received $4.7 million as a settlement. Unused and in limbo, the land filled with litter, unwanted appliances, and junk cars. After the L.A. riots, the city offered the L.A. Regional Food Bank a temporary lease, and the community garden was created as a peace offering to the people. Farmers never paid rent, but they donated small amounts of money to cover essentials (like Port-o-Potties), and the tenants used a democratic, consensus-based system to decide matters like divvying up plots.
The next 10 years were a peaceful interlude, with many successful seasons of hard work and food grown. Many of the South Central farmers are migrant Latinos, and the crops they grew reflected their culture, so it was as if they were able to bring a piece of their homeland with them to a new country. In poor neighborhoods, where grocery stores get replaced by fast-food "fry shacks," diabetes and obesity become epidemic even among the young. The film presents a vital example of what a sustainable, sane food system might look like. Children play in the garden, see firsthand where their dinner originates, and learn skills so they too can grow their own food in the future. The eviction threatened to destroy both the garden and this way of life.
In 2003, Horowitz bought the land back from the city in what the film depicts as a corrupt, secret deal, for the same $5 million. For three years, the fate of the garden was uncertain while the legitimacy of this backroom deal was questioned. Some days in court are triumphant, and the eviction is delayed and rescheduled several times. Local politicians forge and then betray political alliances with the South Central Farmers. The final blow comes when Horowitz ultimately prevails. He offers to sell the farmers the 14 acres for $16 million, and gives them only a month to collect the money.
Even though most viewers are aware of the garden's final fate, we hope against reason as we watch this last-ditch attempt that somehow this beautiful place can be preserved. Fund-raising help from eco-conscious celebrities such as Daryl Hannah, Willie Nelson, Danny Glover gets a lot of attention for the cause, and a gift from the Annenburg Foundation fills the coffers. Against all odds, the $16 million is raised in time.
And then Horowitz breaks his promise, telling the farmers that he won't sell to them at any price, since he feels they have vilified him in the press.
The eviction day is heartbreaking. Lines of police in full riot gear escort bulldozers into the garden, where they tear down trees and plow over fields of greens. The farmers stand witness, many of them weeping, and in the screening room, there weren't many dry eyes either. Since that day in 2006, the land has stood vacant, waiting for a warehouse that may never be built.
The garden's destruction is a potent symbol of misplaced priorities, waste in our society, and of the uselessness of a political system that fails the most disenfranchised, vulnerable people it should be serving. With The Garden nominated for Best Documentary, let's hope that this important film raises public awareness of community gardens and urban farms, both sanctioned and guerilla.
The South Central Farmers have relocated to a farm outside of Bakersfield, from which they still serve many farmer's markets, all the while working to establish another local community garden for the poor people of L.A. Their strength and persistence is an inspiring example for any ethical eater who supports local farmers, and works for a sustainable food system in the U.S.
Elise McDonough is a former Union Square Greenmarket volunteer and the author of the forthcoming Green Guide from Chelsea Green, "Food: How to Buy Right and Spend Less" due out Fall 2009; by day she is a graphic designer. Full disclosure: The film was made by Elise's employer's son, who she's never met; her employer bought tickets to a special screening of the movie for Elise and several coworkers. "It's a truly inspiring and well-made documentary," she says, "I'd like to encourage others to see it, and hopefully it will reach a wider audience."