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Community Garden Will Be Pulled Up by Its Roots

The South L.A. land where people have grown food is to be developed.

October 13, 2003|Hector Becerra and Emily Green | Times Staff Writers

More than 300 urban farmers face eviction at year's end when a large community garden in South Los Angeles, created in the wake of the 1992 riots, is converted to industrial space.

In a closed session in August, the Los Angeles City Council approved the sale of the garden at 41st and Alameda streets, which was founded by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank in 1992.

The decision ends a long legal dispute by returning the land, about the size of 14 football fields, to Ralph Horowitz, the owner of the site when the city used eminent domain in the mid-1980s to purchase it for a trash-burning plant.

When community protest defeated plans for the incineration plant, the land was lent to the food bank for a community garden. As the garden entered its second season in 1994, the city sold the land to the Harbor Department as part of the Alameda Corridor development. Only a fragment was used and the garden continued.

The sale to the Harbor Department, however, eventually prompted Horowitz to sue. His suit alleged that he was to have been offered right of first refusal if the city sold the land. In an out-of-court settlement, the city and the Harbor Department agreed to sell the land back to Horowitz, thus forcing the end of one of the country's largest urban gardens.

The land adjoins the headquarters of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the nation's second-largest distributor of free food to the urban poor. After the 1992 riots that were sparked by the Rodney King verdict, the food bank's executive director, Doris Bloch, said she saw the land as a potential site for some of the city's poorest residents to grow their own food.

Since its dedication in December 1992, the garden has been divided into 360 plots averaging 30 feet by 30 feet and tended by 330 families. Most of the families who grow food on the plots have household incomes of between $12,000 and $22,000 a year, said Ray Calzada, a certified master gardener and food bank garden liaison.

They are overwhelmingly Latino and grow traditional greens and fruits uncommon in U.S. markets, including: chilicayotes, a large squash that is cooked in syrup and made into candy; leafy quelite, an amaranth that's eaten like spinach; chayote, a pear-shaped light green squash used in soups; and cactus that bears prickly pears.

In addition to being a food source for low-income families, the site is one of the rare large green open spaces in South-Central. On weekends, many families gather and barter produce in an informal farmers market.

"When I finally got my little piece of land, I was happy, happy. I went right away to buy fence and that door right there and began loosening the ground," said gardener Agustin Valdovinos, 33, a house painter. "When I get out of work, I don't go home, I come straight over here," he said.

He grows a mixture of plants such as chipilin -- its flowers and leaves used in tamales -- and quelite, along with peanuts, corn and pumpkins.

For Eustolia Ochoa, 73, the garden is a place where she can keep herself occupied and grow food for her family.

"On Sundays, I bring my grandchildren and they play all day," Ochoa said. She said that apart from relaxing her, her garden allows her to make a little bit of money and spares her children from having to help her as much. Most of the food -- from herbs to bananas -- goes to her five adult children, and their children, she said.

"My children have their own families. I don't want to ask too much from them. I don't want to be a burden on them," said Ochoa, who has had a plot at the garden for eight years. "It's not so easy to get a job nowadays."

In the largely Latino garden, Russian immigrant Henrik Baburyan, 72, said he, too, has found happiness. "If you see this in the spring," he said pointing at a fruit tree, "it's very nice, very beautiful -- flowered."

As the garden evolved, it became a model for a community gardening movement championed by former Mayor Richard Riordan. Under Riordan, the city pledged to lease any city-owned land for $1 a year to any credible community group able to start a garden.

Yvonne Savio, manager of the Common Ground Garden Program, said there are about 60 community gardens in L.A. They range in size from three raised beds in Little Tokyo to the approximately 14-acre food bank garden.

"If any garden should be preserved, it's this one," said Douglas Sutter, a master gardener and organizer of the Echo Park Community Garden, which is about a third of an acre. "Out of the 62 official community gardens, only about 10 are in underprivileged areas. People in that garden make a living from those plots. It's an amazing community."

As the garden grew, however, both the tenants and the food bank were aware that the land could be taken back.

"When the gardeners get the plot, they sign an agreement, and it says specifically that the garden can be taken away at any time," said Michael Flood, who replaced Bloch in 1999 at the food bank. "But the garden had almost 11 years of momentum."

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