News & Politics

Celebs Fail, An Urban Paradise Is Plowed Under

Despite help from Hollywood's progressive celebrities, L.A.'s biggest community garden is raided and bulldozed away.
This is their justice, eh?" said Tezozomoc, elected representative of the community gardeners called the South Central Farmers. "This is their dialogue."

All around him his world was exploding, a world he'd tried to hold together with an army of pro-bono lawyers, celebrity friends, and over 350 fiercely devoted low-income Mesoamerican immigrant families. It was a coalition force that held onto a 14-acre chunk of South Los Angeles, smack on the heavily industrialized Alameda Corridor, for over 14 years, two of them under eviction notice - maintaining 24-hour vigil over their padlocked garden plots, mobbing weekly City Council meetings, and generating a mountain of court documents as they made their simple appeal to the citizens of L.A.: Save the city's biggest community garden.

But they were living on borrowed time and, on Tuesday, June 13, time ran out. The scene on the ground was messy, though never violent, as L.A. County Sheriffs, Fire Department, and LAPD moved in with helmeted troops and bulldozers to make the world safe for warehousing. The scene was snarled with scores of emergency vehicles and a half-dozen helicopters and honking semi-tractor trailers trying to get through the heavily industrialized streets. As Tezozomoc talked at around 11 a.m., he pointed out the ladder truck moving into position to remove the last two people left in the gardens, Kill Bill actress Daryl Hannah and environmental activist John Quigley, chained to lockboxes up in the property's iconic walnut trees. By noon, they were down and it was over. The bulldozers moved in on the gardens.

Tezozomoc stood in the intersection of Long Beach Avenue and 41st Street, among a clot of about 250 furious protestors, some of them with faces covered by bandanas and many of them banging relentlessly on a metal gate, and said, referring to the owner of the gardens property, developer Ralph Horowitz: "Just yesterday, we thought we had saved this farm. But Horowitz and [Councilwoman Jan] Perry wanted the eviction - no matter how much money was on the table."

For almost a year, the farmers had tried to arrange for the city to buy the property from Horowitz, who publicly stated he was amenable to the idea as long as he could get his asking price of $16 million. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had tried to negotiate that sale on Monday morning, but said Horowitz refused the offer.

"Today's events are unfortunate, disheartening, and unnecessary," said Villaraigosa in a statement Tuesday.

Zack de la Rocha, former lead singer for the activist rock band Rage Against the Machine, and an ardent supporter of the farm, swept Tezozomoc into a tight and long hug.

"How are you, brother?" he said quietly, as the two men wept. "We know you tried so fucking hard."

"This is a betrayal," De la Rocha told me. "Horowitz's children will never have to worry about a bite of food. But for these people, this is how they feed themselves."

He looked at the line of deputies sealing off the MTA train line that ran alongside Long Beach Avenue between the black-and-green-clad demonstrators and the farm, tears in his eyes.

"Isn't this farm the kind of civic interaction that the city and its politicians are trying to stir?" he asked. "But when it crosses capital and development plans, they get hit over the head with clubs."

In fact, there was little club-swinging when the eviction came. Sheriffs in helmets and wielding batons arrived at 5 a.m. and cut through the locks securing the large metal chain link gates, where eviction notices had been posted and reposted for years during the tumultuous legal battle. Of the 17 or so people who were arrested inside the garden, most were "walkers," who agreed to walk out under their own power. Another half-dozen fixed themselves to lockboxes made from 55-gallon drums filled with cement. Hannah and Quigley went up the tree. But all were removed without significant incident. A total of 40 were arrested, including demonstrators arrested blocking streets and sidewalks outside.

If this eviction did represent a betrayal, it was built on false hopes engendered by the farmers' interaction with city government. In the last year, it was clear the city was making an attempt to purchase the farm from Horowitz as a significant chunk of rare greenspace in one of the city's most industrial areas. Information flowing out of those negotiations was sporadic and unreliable, and farmers were left guessing what exactly was happening. The Trust for Public Lands offered $5 million if the city could find matching funds, but that effort seemed to falter when Villaraigosa's office finally announced a few weeks ago that it was ditching the effort, saying the funds were not forthcoming.

Julia "Butterfly" Hill, who became a legend after sitting in a redwood tree called Luna for two years in an anti-logging protest in Northern California, turned up at the farm and made her first treesit since her leaving Luna. Activist songstress Joan Baez went up another walnut tree with Quigley. Stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Danny Glover, Ben Harper, and Laura Dern either visited the farm or offered their support.

Then, only days ago, their efforts seemed to bear fruit: the Annenberg Foundation announced a plan to bring $10 million more to the table. Finally able to match Horowitz's asking price, Villaraigosa went in with an offer. Horowitz refused.

"Last week, after 10 months of negotiations and efforts by my staff and others from the Trust for Public Lands and the Annenberg Foundation - a proposal for a full-price, $16 million purchase was made," Villaraigosa explained in his statement.

"This morning," the statement continued, "Mr. Horowitz told me that he would not sell the property to the Trust for Public Lands and the Annenberg Foundation."

Horowitz told the L.A. Times he was upset about anti-Semitic remarks made about him, and all the money he'd spent on mortgage and insurance payments over the last couple years, saying it was no longer a matter of price, he just wasn't selling.

Interviewed from her treesit platform two weeks ago, Baez, like Hannah, confessed she didn't know about the farm before coming there. "But then you see it, and see it's a community and a living garden and its really functioning. Then you have to do what you can. So I grabbed a rope." Quigley pointed out that the farm, which was created on property leased to the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank after the 1992 Rodney King riots, said this was important for the community. "We need to save it to show that something good came out of that effort to rebuild South-Central."

On Tuesday, one protester summed up the sentiment among the farm supporters, as he walked with a sign that read: "Antonio did not try." As farmer and activist Maribel Tlatoa led chants over a PA system - shouting, "Food, not warehouses!" - Tezozomoc was hollering into his cell phone, "They're bulldozing right now! Get down here!"

"Maybe it's all over," he sighed, hanging up.

But later that night, an e-mail appeared to supporters and media, announcing late-night vigils at the farm and at the mayor's home. It read, in part: "We are continuing to stand strong with tears in our eyes. It is not over yet! The community cannot be defeated."

But if the fight continues, it's without their plots of indigenous plants, cactus, and guava trees, including the one that Tezozomoc said is the only thing his father left him when he died. That place is gone.
Dean Kuipers is editor of LA CityBeat.
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