South Central Farm, Los Angeles.
The showdown is likely here this week over the preservation of this nation’s largest urban farm worked by 350 families for 13 years to feed themselves and their neighbors a dazzling variety of organic produce.
Will the Sheriff of Los Angeles County move on this 14 acre farm with dozens of squad cards to enforce an eviction notice on behalf of its developer-owner?
Or will the Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio R. Villaraigosa, come up with the private benefactors to match what has already been raised in order to meet the hefty selling price of about $16 million by its present owner, Ralph Horowitz?
Wednesday seems to be the day of decision. The Sheriff is focusing on eviction and has laid elaborate battle plans featuring overwhelming force in the early dawn hours and hoping for a minimum of injuries. He proudly swears that this is not going to be “another Seattle,” meaning a prolonged, out of control, media-saturated struggle.
At the same time, the Mayor, desiring to let the farmers continue their urban community gardens and farmers’ market, is racing to raise the over $1 million per acre price tag. He wants to avoid what could become a very ugly confrontation between determined residents, practicing organized non-violent civil disobedience against police with clubs, tear gas and other eviction tools. The Mayor knows that he could become either the hero of this vast, impoverished area of this city or its memorable villain.
Yesterday, I visited South Central Farm and felt the energy of its people-creative energy brimming with plans to make their acres a “hub of a city-wide green movement, a learning center for schoolchildren, a demonstration garden for home gardeners, a community space for art and performance, a plaza for our farmers’ market, a commons for all of us.” Mr. Horowitz wanted the land for use as a warehouse.
The South Central Farm is fast becoming a cause-celebre earning the designation-“The Whole World is Watching.” Celebrities from Hollywood, the musical and political arenas have visited. The stalwart of stalwarts, Julia Butterfly Hill-of Redwood Residence fame-is living in a tree there and is in her 20th day of fasting. Contributions and expressions of support are coming in from many countries.
Walking through the gardens felt like the two meanings of the word-verdure-“the greenness of growing vegetation and a condition of health and vigor.” The corn was shoulder high, vines, vegetable and fruit plants of large varieties were coming to fragrant fruition. The seeds are a big deal. People here talk about them lovingly. Many came from Mexico and none are the kind that are subjected to a regular payment to Monsanto. They are passed from one small farmer to another.
A dualistic sense of impending doom or victory is everywhere. Having experienced a series of legal defeats, due to a bizarre history of City Hall dealings with this land, there appear to be more pessimists than optimists. At least a foreboding pessimism. To people here the law is seen as an instrument of oppression instead of a mechanism for justice.
A little history will frame the present conflict. In 1986, the City of Los Angeles took over this scarred, debris-ridden tract by eminent domain for the purpose of building a waste incinerator. The city paid a developer, Horowitz, $5 million with the proviso that if the land was ever resold he would have the right to buy it back. Attorneys for the farmers assert this is an illegal proviso and there is a trial date to litigate the question on July 12th.
Local opposition to the incinerator stopped the project. In 1992 after the upheavals in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, then Mayor Tom Bradley let the farmers move onto the land under the aegis of the L.A. Food Bank. They cleaned up the area and in their words, “made the soil live again.”
In 1995, the city shifted the property to the L.A. Harbor Department as part of the Alameda Corridor plan-a commercial zone set up for development.
In 2002, Mr. Horowitz sued the city alleging that the transfer violated his earlier buy back agreement with the city. Attorneys for Los Angeles won three separate motions to dismiss his case but Mr. Horowitz persisted. Suddenly city officials agreed to sell the land back to him for the same $5 million, in secrecy, even though these officials knew the land was worth over twice that sum. The developer received title in December of 2003.
The next month, Mr. Horowitz told the farmers to get out immediately. A flurry of lawsuits followed-the farmers have good, conscientious attorneys-but the court ruled for the developer and issued an order of eviction on May 24th 2006.
After I spoke with a well-placed city official, my prediction is that South Central Farms will be like its soil. It will continue “to breathe, drink and sweat. It will continue to harbor life and dreams.”
It will not be destroyed because its people are indomitable. People who are indomitable, who stay together and take a stand in a righteous cause with overwhelming public support, often can end political careers.
The whole world is watching.