Monday, December 11, 2006

Return of the South Central Farmers

I recently put down a circle and drew roughly a six-mile radius around APCH, where I work in South L.A., and it illustrated very clearly how Los Angeles is several cities. The six-mile circle encompassed Hollywood and Silverlake; downtown L.A., a center of international finance; the rough places, like Compton and Huntington Park and Southgate, parks, hospitals, universities. Several different L.A.'s are represented in the "six miles."

There is also an organic farming community. For years, they had been permitted to use some land in the middle of the city for a community garden, and there were some decent vegetables being grown in the city. They lost their land to a developer - you may have read about the actress Darryl Hannah being arrested during the protests last year - but the farmers are back, as this story relates (with a considerable amount of editorializing):

-------------------------This story was written by Leslie Radford for Indymedia:

It was bittersweet, turning right on 41st Place off Alameda. The South Central Farmers were celebrating the opening of their community center. There they were, the Farmers bringing fresh organic vegetables into South Central, where Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe's dare not tread.

The Farmers had lined the tables at the tianguis with chard, radishes, pomegranates, almonds, squash, and grapes. Grapes not too sweet, grapes that tasted like a crisp, slightly fruity wine. Four dollars could be swapped for two plastic bags of fresh produce, all from small farmers in the local food shed.

The center itself is four freshly painted rooms, lined with art and photos and reminders of the fight to save the Farm, waiting for more art, music, computers, and eventually a storefront. It is here that the Farmers and their supporters will meet to assess the community's needs and how best to meet them, where they will continue their efforts to engage and educate the community.

And they will use the center, just yards from the now-bulldozed Farm, to pressure local officials to take "a principled stance," as Tezozomac, one of the Farm leaders, put it. With pride, he added, "We delivered what we promised: we said we'd raise the money to save the Farm, and we did. We promised to deliver healthy food to the community, and we are. We'll be here every month."

The Los Angeles City Council approved the sale of the land--abandoned by the City and cultivated by local Mexican and Central American Farmers for years--to a local developer for $6M. The developer, Ralph Horowitz, promptly raised the price to $16M. In spite of an international outcry, hundreds attending nightly vigils, pleas from celebrities and ordinary residents, the Annenberg Foundation and other sources' offer to buy the Farm, and a standoff with sheriffs that ended in protestors being plucked from trees and jackhammered out of concrete-filled barrels, Horowitz ultimately refused to sell the land to the Farmers.

A band of musicians played, sang, and danced in the street, while children romped in one of those big, blow-up balloon houses. Perhaps four hundred people were coming and going, streaming by with bags of groceries. Friends from the Farm struggle smiled and hugged. New Farm supporters were introduced to old. One newcomer, Irene, had helped facilitate a small grant between the Farmer and the Community Research in Cancer Network, a project of UCLA Public Health Cancer Prevention and Control Research Network. The money produced DVDs for South Central residents on healthy eating. Irene had spent her day helping children make gift cards printed with fruits and vegetables.

She cited a Community Health Councils initiative to bring quality food to South Central. Although the CHC was working to use existing local outlets--she mentioned Vallarta Market--she feared that the City would end up subsidizing large chains and, as always in Los Angeles, developers would suck up the subsidies. A Farmer chimed in, "Vallarta has three types of potatoes, all tasteless sugar. Here today we have twelve types of fresh, healthy potatoes."

Some of the original Farmers have relocated to a community garden at Avalon and Stanford, last month inaugurated by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for the third time. Both the L.A. Garden Council and Councilmember Jan Perry have opened the same garden in past months. The Stanford Avalon gardeners, where sixty of the three hundred and fifty original South Central Farmers now labor, have chosen to use chemical fertilizers on their fields. High tension electrical lines, suspected of causing cancer, leukemia, and brain cancer, cut a swath across the land, but the L.A. Garden Council notes that the electrical towers and their electromagnetic fields guarantee that "the land is not threatened by development over the long term."

Villaraigosa's "grand opening" ride on a tractor was heralded by mainstream media in an obvious ploy to distract his largely Chicano and Westside base from his disastrous handling of the South Central Farm.

Meanwhile, according to The Planning Report, Perry is enticing developers with "300 acres of industrial land in South Los Angeles," noting "there is no shortage of opportunity"--except for the South Central Farmers and healthy food.

One of the struggle's organizers stepped up. Dele went to the political core: "Villaraigosa's boulevard to higher office is plowed straight through the South Central Farm." His jaw was clenched, his eyes sparked. "And Jan Perry won't do anything that doesn't satisfy the real estate interests."

Before the Farmers began reclaiming the fourteen acres at 41st in Alameda back in 1992, it had been an informal dump and drug hangout. Today, in the custodianship of Horowitz, uncultivated nopales and corn stalks struggle against the intrusion of countless of styrofoam cups, yards of broken glass, car bumpers, abandoned sofas, and dozens of discarded tires. It's easy to imagine dealers and customers once again scurrying in and out of the holes in the fence, crouching in the shadow of the bulldozer or sliding under the black walnuts that had nestled tree-sitters in their limbs just four months ago.

It's difficult not to despair. The Annenberg Foundation has boxed up the trees for Mr. Horowitz who, by city statute, has to preserve or replace them. The sister walnut trees are still in the ground, but a shallow circular trench marks where their roots will be cut.

Villaraigosa has offered to find the trees a temporary sanctuary in Griffith Park. There's an odd irony there. The city has just completed a $93M renovation to Griffith Observatory--nearly six times Horowitz's asking price for the Farm--and admission now requires reservations and three fees to get into the observatory there: for parking, for a shuttle, and for the observatory show.

Villaraigosa and the city council couldn't find a dime to save the Farm, and now, if the low-income Farmers want to visit their trees, it's unlikely they'll be taking their children to Griffith Park's chief attraction.

I asked a middle-aged Farm supporter why he had come out today. He said, "Eighty percent of the youth volunteers have not given up on the land. This is their Oaxaca. And now they're fighting for Oaxaca and Atenco. They're fighting police oppression. And they're still fighting for the Farm. I'm here for the kids--they keep me fighting. We're getting hundreds of calls from young people across the county today. They want to know what they can do."

On one side of the sidewalk was a neighborhood dump where a Farm has once flourished. Trees are yanked from the earth, their roots imprisoned in wooden cages. On the other, hundreds of Farmers, shoppers, supporters selling fresh produce where no Whole Foods will go, with Azteca dancers, bouncing children, and a bright art-laden community center. It is an act of will, a leap of faith, a commitment to the power of the people to believe the Farmers can win.

Aqui estamos y no nos vamos.

[end story]

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