By Jessica Hoffmann, Christine Petit, et al.
Over the past several months, I’ve repeatedly encountered, nodded in agreement with, and voiced the arguments for preserving the South Central Farm: it creates social and environmental value; it privileges these and other community values over individual property rights and monetary profits; it is an example of community self-determination; farmers there are cultivating heirloom Mesoamerican plants not found in stores; LA’s urban center needs more greenspace, not less.
The plan for these pages was to present a brief history of the farm accompanied by short oral histories of several farmers. But as we1 tried to make sense of the land’s complicated history by talking to stakeholders and following media coverage, we kept encountering the same separate narratives, neatly grouped, and started wondering about the absence of direct critical engagement with any of them. So we went back and did different interviews, asking questions that seemed strangely absent from the conversations we’d heard and participated in — questions about the tensions between reformism and radicalism, about ad hoc organizing strategies and broad social-justice theories, about difficult alliances, and more.2
Too often, people struggling with or against each other engage in parallel but insulated conversations. When we as radicals do that, we’re failing to reckon forthrightly with the worldviews we’re challenging, and among ourselves we’re repeating general ideals rather than interrogating how those ideals do — and don’t — inform struggle-specific strategies.
In presenting conversations with various voices here, I’m not aiming for “fair and balanced reporting” but asking you to critically consider several parallel but mostly insular narratives which are each simultaneously about a single plot of land and a way of seeing the whole world — side by side. I want to see what change-making discussions and strategies might emerge from that view.
TALKING WITH Ralph Horowitz (Property Owner)
What’s your version of the story of this land?
From my perspective, the taxpayers of the city of Los Angeles have given this group the privilege of using Los Angeles city land for 12-plus years for free, and the city taxpayers are entitled to a thank-you as opposed to a lawsuit.
What about the argument that the farm is generating social and environmental value?
The city has made the decision that they have other things that they’d rather subsidize that the city deems more important. The city of LA does have a lot of needs and if they’ve made a decision that there are needs that are much more pressing than people having a weekend vegetable garden, I can understand.
What are your plans for the land?
My plans are market-driven. When we get the property back, we’re gonna determine what the viable use is depending on the market conditions and we’ll do that. If someone was in need of a manufacturing plant or a warehouse, we’d do that for them.… We’d market the property for lease, and real-estate brokers would bring people who wanted to do something, and then the negotiations would start.
Are there variables other than dollar amounts that would affect your leasing decision?
Quality of the tenant. A quality tenant might be taken at less remuneration versus a lower-quality tenant at higher remuneration.
What about whether the tenant would create jobs? Or environmental impacts?
Environmental impact wouldn’t come into play too often because there are such stringent environmental regulations now that almost every industrial tenant puts out a clean workshop.
Obviously on a piece of property that size, in any event, a lot of jobs will be created.… If we develop with a warehouse person or a manufacturing person, anything we do is gonna create a lot of jobs…. [The farmers] are not creating any jobs.
You told me you feel you have no allies, yet it seems to me the decision went your way —
I have yet to interview with one [reporter] that wasn’t pro-farmers.
Why do you think that is?
It’s obvious in the articles that they put out and it’s obvious when they ask questions that their leanings are towards the gardeners.
Do you think that says something about journalists or the people who are interested in this particular story or —
I think, number 1, young people in general are liberal, and number 2, here in LA we have a very liberal press, so it’s not a surprise.
So what do you feel is not being drawn out by their — our — questions?
A lot. But just to give you an example: The farmers know that I have agreed with the city of LA that at such time as the farmers leave and the property becomes available for development — I have agreed to give to the city, without charge, a little under a three-acre soccer field, which the city had said it had a real need for in the neighborhood.… And in the articles I’ve read, I don’t think anyone’s looked in the file or even questioned me on whether or not I was going to donate a soccer field. And secondly, a soccer field is open to the whole community — anybody in the community can use that. This garden isn’t. These little plots are used by them exclusively. If you or I wanted to take our rake or shovel or hoe and do a little gardening there, we can’t.
But anyone in the community can apply for a parcel. They just need to meet certain income requirements.
My point is it’s not a public use. These gardeners are wanting to use these little plots themselves, indefinitely.… Some of them have been on there 12 or 15 years; they’re not forced to rotate every year or two to make room for someone else…
Do you think it’s fair — or democratic — that the decision to sell the land to you was made between your attorneys and the city’s attorneys, without any input from the people who are using the land?
The city made the decision — our elected City Council made the decision to sell this piece of land, not to me — they put it on the market — they made this decision to sell this piece of land because they in their wisdom probably had determined that there are more pressing social needs for the land. If you’re telling me it’s more democratic to have these people tell the city that “we’ve been on here 12 or 14 years and we don’t think we should get out,” that doesn’t sound very democratic.… This is a decision to be made by our elected representatives, not by the farmers.
Would you say you got a deal?
Somehow the farmers think it sounds good, like I got to steal the property from the city. The city would not honor their agreement to me and sell it to me first. A lawsuit ensued, and as a result of the lawsuit, a purchase price was established.… I didn’t even participate in the discussions; it was attorney to attorney. This was a settlement in lieu of litigation. There were no big bargains. There was no corruption. It was as normal a sale as could be. Both sides gave up something and both sides received something. It was a negotiated settlement between the city attorney and my attorney.
But it WAS quite a low price, no?
I don’t want to get into all that, but I will tell you that the city put the property on the market at the time and they received numerous written offers [that] all came in sort of bunched around a certain price range. The price I paid was around the high end of that bunching.
So the farmers are being evicted—
The farmers have not been served with any eviction notice at all. If they don’t leave the property voluntarily, they will be served with an eviction notice.
What’s the timeline for that?
The courts set that.
So you’re just waiting…
Until the court issues a writ of possession so you could remove the farmers if they won’t do so voluntarily.
Anything you want to add?
There’s tons of stuff that I think is relevant, but I’d rather just answer your questions. As I indicated to you before, I think the farmers should be grateful that the city allowed them to stay on the land for free for so long, instead of demanding that the city or I should allow them to stay on forever for free. It’s just not a rational request.
TALKING WITH Tezozomoc (Farmer-Organizer, Spokesperson, South Central Farmers)
What’s your version of the story of this place?
It’s really complicated. It speaks very much to the nature of Los Angeles politics.… We’re sitting in the middle of the desert and we’ve got [millions of] people. Everything that arrives here requires lots and lots of energy. There’s something fundamentally wrong [with that], and this situation is a parallel, on the micro level.
In 1992, after the uprising, [then-mayor] Bradley mitigated the slant of the community in a symbolic way by saying, “Yeah, there’s a lot of inequities in the community, so let’s see what you guys can do with this [land].” That’s one part of the story. The other part is what the community did with it. People addressing their own needs in an autonomous way has created a kind of a subversive situation where we are challenging the fundamentals of consumerism.
Can we back up to ’92?
The original process [of giving the land to the farmers] was done through the Food Bank. Then in 1994 the Food Bank said, “We can’t afford to hire a person [to manage the project],” and they were gonna close this place down. But the community came together and told the Food Bank, “Let us run it. We have an internal government. We have a general assembly and representatives from different sections. It’s based on the Mexican ejido system, the communal-land structure, where they have a junta and all of the general assembly come for decision-making and all that.”
You’ve got a very strong organization, with a lot of community support—
It’s taken us two years to build up to this.… All of a sudden, people feeding themselves has become very political. People didn’t set out to become political; what they’re doing became political. Those are the best struggles because they’re not artificial. People are saying, “I just wanna feed my family. I wanna grow healthy food.”
Why would you want to destroy something that is so profitable, but not in a money sense? If a government is supposed to act as the great equalizer, then we really have failed, because we’re paying an evolutionary fitness price so that one person can benefit at the expense of 350 families — and the community. Because [Horowitz] is not gonna add any value to this community, and we’re adding value. How many jobs can you put in a warehouse? We’re not talking about hundreds of people. If it was hundreds of people, I’d be backing him up. I can’t argue about that. If he says, “Okay, we’re gonna hire 200 people, 300 people—” good. Hire some of these people … [but] when you’re asking one group to pay for the fitness of one individual, that’s where we fail in terms of justice.
It’s not just that we’re yelling and screaming. We’re saying, Let’s do policy change. Let’s dictate that in a lower-income neighborhood like this, if you’re gonna build a 20-unit apartment, you have a space that’s allocated for people to do some gardening, or to hang out. We want to move away from mitigation — meaning, I destroy your neighborhood, and then lemme just give you a little something to pacify you. We’re saying, No, let’s start at the beginning. Let’s put these things in place.
So how do you organize for radical re-thinkings of the system AND for policy changes within that system?
We’re trying to find our way through it. We’re working with the Willie C. Velazquez Institute [a nonprofit public-policy-analysis organization aimed at improving political and economic participation among Latinos and other underrepresented groups]. They had a conference in November about the — I don’t like the word “Latino,” but — about Latinos and the environment — how mainstream environmentalists don’t get that we’ve had thousands of years of understanding the land, that we have a different — a land ethic that goes back thousands of years. So we’ve been working with groups like them and the Los Angeles Working Group on the Environment [a coalition of community-based organizations working with Mayor Villaraigosa on environmental policy], building coalitions and building relationships with policy organizations. Ultimately, this is gonna have to be a policy change. I’m not gonna make it happen. This has to be a policy change … but that doesn’t happen unless we get policy people on top. And the way that we’ve been working has been through these large organizations.
But this is tricky — take the initial connection between the Food Bank and the farm and the division now between those two parties, which is in part a struggle between radicalism and reformism and the difficulties of some alliances — now you’re talking alliances with these policy organizations —
But the thing is, you get to specify how this happens. Because we’ve got nothing to lose, we can advocate a particular type of policy. Every day that we are here we are winning. We’re winning in the policy and we’re winning the media war in the sense that we’re saying what we want — we’re saying what the community wants, this is what all these petitions are saying. I’m not the type of extremist that says the system doesn’t work. Whether you like it or not, you are in this system. Do you know the three laws of thermodynamics? You can’t stop playing, you have to keep playing, and you will never win.
So sometimes you try and make headway with politicians, sometimes you —
Sometimes you create chaos and sometimes you create distractions. Anything is possible. Remember, in 1776 slavery was legal. It was legal to gas the Jews, right? So the law is — it’s a living body, it’s a reflection of who we are. It’s just a matter of how much energy is required to hit critical mass. The universe does not move in linear mode. It moves in … I’m trying to get you to understand why we’re able to move the way we move. A lot of our ideas are coming from indigenismo and from our cultural perspective. We’ve been farming for thousands of years.
This gets back to how different your worldview is from Horowitz’s.
My challenge is for people to question these fundamentals, question the worldview. Once you can do that, you have a better chance of struggling. Why is the first question out of a reporter’s mouth [about] “property rights”? Why does this make so many people nervous? Particularly on this continent, because of the land struggle. We need to ask those fundamental questions.
TALKING TO Darren Hoffman (Communications Manager, Los Angeles Regional Food Bank)
What’s the story from where you’re standing?
The garden was established 14 years ago through the Food Bank and the city. The Food Bank got involved just because of proximity — it’s right across the street.
The land was originally taken through eminent domain from Ralph Horowitz [et al.] for city use.… We approached the city right after the Rodney King riots to see if we could use it on a temporary basis. They weren’t gonna do anything with it for probably two years, and two years is better than nothing. We did soil samples, [got it] approved for urban gardening, sent out a call to residents, set up income requirements and location requirements…. Every farmer that came on, we informed them through a contract that it was a temporary program. We had a one-sided lease granted by the city; it was a revocable permit. They could give us 30 days’ notice at any time….
About two years ago, the city, through a legal settlement, returned the land back to Horowitz.... Once the court order went through that the transfer was happening, the city served us with a revoking of permit.…
We have a one-sided revocable lease. It’s black and white. As soon as we get notice from the courts that we have to depart the property, we’ll have to do that. We’re just waiting for the court’s decision….
We hate to see this loss, because it’s such a great community project. But we don’t want any lawsuits to burden us, because we have other programs — this is a small program compared to the big programs we have.
Our main business is food distribution to nearly 1,000 charitable agencies throughout LA County. Last year we distributed 45 million pounds of food. That’s about 33 million meals.
How do you feel about having been involved in a temporary sort of “gift” to the community, rather than a long-term committed project?
The fact that it was built to be a self-sufficient program and that all these gardeners are uniting to create a core group that’s organized is neat to see. We hate to see it go, because it is a green oasis in the middle of an asphalt jungle, but we knew it was temporary going into it.
Do you think there’s a greater role the Food Bank could play in saving the farm?
We’re on the outside, kind of a third party to it now. We’ve facilitated everybody in the city in talking with the farmers. We have no legal right to the land or any say. We’ve used our influence with the City Council people to find other unused city land. We’ve done everything we can legally. If we continue to stay on the land after the permit’s revoked, [Horowitz] would charge us for occupying the land. That would really destroy the Food Bank. We don’t want to have that kind of liability.
We hate to see the garden go, but it’s in the court’s hands now.
1. In addition to Christine Petit and myself, lots of credit for research (including interviewing) and critical dialogue on this piece is owed to Angela McCracken, David Rothbaum, and Daria Teruko Yudacufski.
2. Many more individuals were interviewed for this piece than are represented here. This selection of published interviews reflects many people’s meaningful choices about voice and representation – about who speaks for whom. Tezozomoc is an elected spokesperson for the farmer-organizers, Darren Hoffman is the LA Regional Food Bank’s communications manager, and Ralph Horowitz is the (presently singular) landowner. Attempts were made to obtain interviews with City Council members, but calls went unreturned.