Neoliberalism at the Garden Gate

The fate of LA’s South Central Community Farm, the nation’s largest community garden, hinges on a dubious back-room deal between a developer and an ambitious city attorney. According to the Los Angeles Times, though, it’s all pretty straight-forward.

“It would be nice to keep the South Central Community Garden, an island of lush kitchen crops covering 14 acres amid the industrial warehouses, packing plants and junkyards that stretch for miles in a seemingly endless sweep along Alameda Street,” the paper declared in a March 11 editorial. But the garden sits on private property, the Times continued, and its owner “has every right to kick out the people who have been squatting there for more than a decade.” And the putative owner, Brentwood developer Ralph Horowitz, is exercising his right to the hilt. He has evicted the gardeners, who are now clinging to the land on the strength of a court-ordered stay that expires March 20.

In its place Horowitz plans to erect a warehouse-possibly for Wal-Mart. The garden lies conveniently near the Alameda Corridor, a $2.4 billion city project designed to facilitate the flow of goods shipped into the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports through the metropolitan area. Since its completion in 2002, big-box retailers have scrambled to build warehouses in South Central.

If Horowitz and his apologists at the Times have their way, the 350 families who tend plots at the garden, all of who whom live under the poverty line according USDA’s guidelines, will have to find a new source of fresh food. Although they’ve created a “special, almost magical, place,” the Times opined, “no magic is so strong that it erases a landowner’s right to either his property or its fair value.”

Irony abounds here like vegetables in a well-tended garden plot. Most of the plot holders are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. A generation of neoliberal policies in Latin America has turned smallholder farming there into an economic disaster, sending legions of displaced farmers north in search of gainful employment. These immigrants-whose hard work for low pay has helped underwrite the U.S. inflation miracle, keeping interest rates low so consumers can, well, consume-find few opportunities to grow their own food here in El Norte. In this case, when they did gain access to kitchen plots, the invisible fist of neoliberalism swooped down again, powered as always by property’s inalienable right.

Yet the ironies go deeper than double-displacement-deeper even than plunking a big-box warehouse, groaning with goods manufactured by low-wage workers in China, on top of a food source for low-wage Latino workers in the United States. To understand fully the brazenness of Horowitz’s power play-and the feebleness of the Times’ response to it-you have to sift through the details of how the developer gained title to the land.

Like most urban community gardens, this one sprang up on land that no one much wanted originally. In the late 1980s, the city seized the land under eminent domain from an investment group led by Horowitz. Horowitz’s investment company ended up receiving $4.7 million in compensation. The city’s plan: to build an incinerator to generate electricity by burning trash.

Most people don’t like to live amid the stench of garbage, so the neighborhood successfully organized to stop that project. By the time of the Rodney King rebellion in 1992, the lot had become trash-strewn and abandoned. The city agreed to allow the Los Angeles Food Bank to invite neighborhood residents to transform it into a community garden. By all accounts, neighborhood residents rallied around the asset, turning it into a vital source of fresh food in an area with few grocery stores.

Here is how Dean Kuipers, whose piece in the LA CityBeat for Jan. 26, 2005 remains the best account of the farm’s plight so far, describes it:

“The contrast with community gardens elsewhere in the city is shocking. These aren’t tiny weekend projects with a few tomatoes and California poppies. The 330 spaces here are large, 20 X 30 feet, many of them doubled- and tripled-up into larger plots, crammed with a tropical density of native Mesoamerican plants — full-grown guava trees, avocados, tamarinds, and palms draped in vines bearing huge pumpkins and chayotes, leaf vegetables, corn, seeds like chipilin grown for spice, and rank upon rank of cactus cut for nopales. The families who work these plots are all chosen to receive one because they are impoverished by USDA standards, and use them to augment their household food supply. These are survival gardens.”

But the birth of a thriving, productive community garden wasn’t the only thing that changed in the area after the King riots. In the 1990s, the city of Los Angeles dropped a cool $2.4 billion to build out the Alameda Corridor, “a modern rail and big-truck super-pipeline from the Port of Los Angeles straight through the warehouses of South L.A. and Vernon,” Kuipers writes. And that made the once-depressed warehouse district an important hub for big-box retailers to organize the booming influx of goods from points west, including China. In turn, South Central land suddenly became very valuable.

In his dealings with the city in the 1980s, Horowitz had retained right of first refusal if the city ever decided to sell the land. In 2003, after repeated lawsuits had failed to force the city to resell it to him, he cut an out-of-court deal with city attorney Rockard “Rocky” Delgadillo. The city sold Horowitz back the parcel of land for $5 million. His campaign to bulldoze the garden began soon thereafter.

Here is where the story really gets interesting. In its March 11 2006 editorial, the LA Times averred that “the bottom line is that the courts ruled for Horowitz.” But that’s not true. Horowitz regained the land in a back-room deal with Delgadillo, not in court.

South Central Farmers spokesperson Tezozomoc has been a tireless researcher and chronicler of this story. In his work inside and outside of the garden gates-Tezozomoc is studying for a masters’ in linguistics at California State University, Northridge-the man has given new meaning to the old Gramscian phrase “organic intellectual.” Tezozomoc told me that back in 1994, the city valued the land at $13 million when it shifted the title from one city bureaucracy to another. “How can it have been worth $5 million in 2003, when the city itself said it was worth $13 million in 1994-before the Alameda corridor was even close to being finished?” Tezozomoc says. The farmers are now suing the city to reverse the deal, on the grounds that it sold the property from under their feet without consulting them, at a price far below market value.

Horowitz is in turn countersuing the farmers, claiming that they’re abusing the legal system. “How are you going to sue 350 poor families for almost a million dollars?” Tezozomoc asks.

Tezozomoc suggested that I look closer at the dealings between Horowitz and Delgadillo, the city attorney who gave him such a sweet deal on the farm tract. Rocky Delgadillo is an interesting figure. A Harvard law alum, he’s a darling of the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Institute, which named him one of its “100 to Watch” in 2003. In a gushing profile on the DLC’s Web site, Delgadillo describes his path from big-time entertainment lawyer to selfless public servant. His move, like the birth of south Central Farm, hinged on the Rodney King rebellion.

On the day the infamous acquittals, Delgadillo says in the DLC piece, “I felt a great sense of shock but also a great sense of purpose. Coming from the neighborhood I did, I felt fortunate for the opportunities I had been given. . And my parents always taught me I had an obligation to give something back. I knew it was my time to go back and help my community.”

By 2003, he was handing his community’s biggest chunk of green space over to a Brentwood-based developer at a cut rate. Perusing LA’s Ethics Commission web site at Tezozomoc’s urging, I found Ralph Horowitz bolstering Delgadillo’s war chest for the city attorney race with the maximum donation of $1000 in 2000. The only other local politicians Horowitz is on record giving money to are Eric Garcetti and Victor Griego-both of whom, Tezozomoc reports, have supported Horowitz’s bid to pave the garden.

Horowitz co-owns the South Central Community Farm property with something called Shaghan Securities, which gave Delgadillo $1000 in 2001; and with Jack Libaw, who handed Delgadillo $500 in 2001. (Jack’s brother Evan also gave councilman Griego $500 in 1999.) As with Horowitz, these men are on record donating cash only to politicians who have directly benefited their bid to regain control of the Farm property. When you do a search on the Ethics Commission Web site of Delgadillo’s contributors and the term “developer,” a list of seemingly interminable length emerges. Like the LA Times itself, this fellow resides squarely in the pocket of the class that makes dirt fly in Los Angeles-“give back to my community” prattle aside. Delgadillo is now running for California Attorney General.

But this story is about more than back-room deals between politicians and developers and the craven daily newspapers that coddle them. It’s about the contours of civic policy in an era of broad neoliberal consensus. To build the Alameda Corridor-the project that made South Central Community Farm so attractive to Horowitz-the city of Los Angeles cobbled together $2.4 billion. According to a press release from the US DOT’s Federal Highway Administration states, the money came from: “$1 billion raised by revenue bonds issued by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, $400 million directly from the ports, $460 million provided by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and a $400 million loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation.”

That’s an impressive array of bureaucracies united behind a single project. The ideology behind Alameda couldn’t have been more coherent. On the corridor’s 2002 debut, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta declared that: “The Alameda Corridor will help the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach accommodate the increasing trade growth in the future while helping our national economy capitalize on southern California’s standing as a major trade hub of the Pacific Rim.”

The facilitation of global trade, then, receives the unquestioned backing of state and federal authorities. Urban farming, with its myriad environmental and social benefits, gets different treatment. Tezozomoc tells me that LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who gained office last year amid an outpouring of liberal self-congratulation, attended South Central Community Farm meetings during the campaign and “told us what we wanted to hear.” Since then, though, “Villaraigosa has disappeared.” In one of his few recent public pronouncements on the situation, the mayor suggested that the farmers raise $16 million in private donations and buy the tract outright from Horowitz. (Note the tacit admission: the city severely undervalued the land by selling it for $5 million in 2003). Thus are the costs of global trade socialized, while low-wage urban workers are left to fend for themselves in the free market.

Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Victor Griego, to whose political campaign Ralph Horowitz once donated money, served on the LA City Council. Actually, he was defeated in his Council bid. The author regrets the error.

TOM PHILPOTT farms and cooks at Maverick Farms in Valle Crucis, N.C. In his spare time, he writes about the political economy of food. He can be reached at: