Photo: Jeff Pantukhoff / Spectral Q
Uncovering Los Angeles’ Buried Emerald
Just over 10 years ago, South Central Los Angeles was home to one of the biggest urban community gardens in the United States. On June 13, 2006, a developer named Ralph Horowitz bulldozed over what musical activist Joan Baez called “an urban oasis in a concrete jungle.” Today, the plot at 4051 S Alameda Street is still vacant and the South Central Farmers are revitalizing the movement to uncover the lost emerald of Los Angeles.
“This land is literally the birthplace of the environmental justice movement in Los Angeles,” John Quigley, aerial art activist and South Central Farm ally, told Planet Experts. “The Concerned Citizens of South Central fought to keep an incinerator off this property decades ago; then this farm grew out of the ashes of the 1992 LA riots when the LA Food Bank got permission for people to grow food there… It’s a powerful and significant symbol that could be a feather in the cap for the City of Los Angeles.”
For 14 years, South Central community members – about 350 predominantly Latino families – cultivated fresh produce, creative expression and community solidarity on what they called the South Central Farm (SCF).
In 2004, the city sold the 14-acre plot to Horowitz – who previously lost the lot in eminent domain – in what the SCF supporters say was a “backroom deal” in which they had no opportunity to bid on the property.
After two years of negotiations, fundraising and celebrity-driven media campaigns, a sapling of hope sprouted when the Annenberg Foundation offered Horowitz over $16 million (at his request) to purchase the farm.
In a change of heart, Horowitz reneged his offer. “Even if they raised $100 million, this group could not buy this property,” said the developer, who felt disrespected by protesters and anti-semitic comments that came from independent farm supporters (but not the farm representatives).
After a final standoff in which dozens of protestors, including movie star Daryl Hannah, were arrested, the farmers were forced from the property.
Horowitz eventually sold the land to an apparel conglomerate called PIMA Alameda Partners (a group venture of Poetry, Impact, Miss Me, and Active) in 2012 for $17.79 million.
Ten years after the eviction, the farmers and their allies returned to the place they once grew to send a message: “We are Still Here!”
On June 13, 2016, over 100 supporters, led by Quigley, entered the property and installed the words “Aquí Estamos” in massive writing on the dry soil.
“There’s a risk going onto that land, but doing it with the creative idea of sending this giant message was a catalyst to bring people back. It was a deeply moving experience,” said Quigley.
“What was really great about the event was being able to introduce our children to what we remember of the space and seeing the people who grew up on the farm years ago share their stories,” Rosa Romera, Co-President of the South Central Farmers Health and Education movement, told Planet Experts.
“They remember the trees and how important it was for their upbringing because they were – still are – living in a very concrete Los Angeles, and that was their first exposure to green space,” she said.
Seeds of Change
Things have changed over the last 10 years and South Central Farm’s supporters hope that this decade’s seeds of change will be more fruitful than those past.
“I think that the climate and understanding of justice and food access has shifted,” Romera reflected. “There’s a momentum to find innovative solutions to diabetes, hypertension and childhood obesity that really focus on prevention. We have a better understanding about the importance of green space and healthy food for people’s health and well being. Community gardens and local food access are definitely part of that equation.”
The SCF supporters hope that the heightened sense of consciousness will encourage policymakers and the developers to support the farm.
“There are people in the city government who would actively step forward and say this needs to be protected,” Julia Butterfly Hill, environmental activist and longtime SCF ally, told Planet Experts, “but at the end of the day, it requires a willing seller.”
With Horowitz out of the equation, the farmers and their friends hope to purchase the land from PIMA Alameda Partners.
“If we can build a better coalition from the beginning with public and political pressure, we hope the company will be willing to sit down and talk,” said Hill, who was one of the primary fundraisers, celebrity networkers and spokespeople when the farmers were being evicted in the early 2000s. “There’s a fine dance between being a force of resistance and motivation.”
Planet Experts reached out to PIMA but, after multiple requests, the company has yet to respond for an interview.
Current Status of Development
Despite environmental advocates’ optimism, the clothing conglomerate plans on building a multi-structured storage and distribution center. The industrial compound would consist of four distinct parcels with over 480,000 square feet of interior facilities and more than 400 parking spots.
PIMA claims that the planned design and distribution center would create hundreds of jobs for the community.
PIMA is pursuing building permits but has been delayed, in part, by environmental concerns addressed in an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
“The latest Environmental Impact Report shows that there’s no negative effect of building this warehouse in the area although there has been many testimonies to the opposite of that,” said Rosa.
“The South Central Farm was a major inspiration for the great success of the urban gardening movement,” said actress Daryl Hannah. “Now, ten years after the farm was bulldozed, it tragically sits a fallow dirt lot. The fourteen-acre farm could have been feeding that underserved community this entire decade. The people living in that heavily trafficked industrial area do not need yet another warehouse or more pollution, they need and want access to healthy life sustaining food. We hope the city will restore the largest urban farm in the country, one of the jewels of Los Angeles – the South Central Farm.”
The final EIR will be discussed in a hearing arranged for July 6 at 11:10 AM in the Los Angeles City Hall (200 North Spring Street, Room 1020 Los Angeles, CA 90012).
“The purpose of the hearing is to obtain testimony from affected and/or interested persons regarding this project,” the hearing notice states.
“Every time there’s a hearing we mobilize our people to spread the message, ‘Contrary to what the EIR says, this project will have negative effect on the environment and the people in the area,’” Rosa said. “The influx of diesel traffic would increase the risk of lung disease, cancer and asthma.”
After reviewing the testimonies, which must be submitted at or before the court date, the Deputy Advisory Agency “may act on the Parcel Map during the meeting, or may take the Map under advisement and render a decision at a time thereafter.”
Whether the EIR is approved or not, as Julia pointed out, PIMA has to be willing to sell the property for the farmers to break soil and water their dormant roots.
It’s been over 10 years since the Annenberg Foundation and other donors agreed to fund the project. Assuming PIMA’s willing to talk, is there still money available to purchase the property?
Julia is confident the money would come. “The land is still here and the strength is still here; others would step in and help when the time is right,” she said. “We are excited to bring our best selves to the conversation, rebuild the alliances and raise the money.”
“If we do bring the land back we have a bigger vision than before,” said Rosa. “The space would be used as a food hub. It would be a place for local farmers to store food for farmers markets, a place for the community to learn about composting and how to grow their own organic food. I do not know of another place in Los Angeles with 14 undeveloped continuous acres. It would be a real center for the community,” Romera said.
To help nourish the seeds of this growing movement please share this article and the related information (SCF website and Facebook) by using the hashtags #southcentralfarmers, #southcentralfarm and #takebackthefarm.
Tell city representatives Jenna Monterrosa ([email protected]) or William Lamborn ([email protected]) what you think should happen on the land; come to the July 6 court date and stay tuned for future updates.