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L.A. Needs These Oases

October 18, 2003

The heaps of brilliant yellow-orange squash flowers Alejandro Morales had just harvested spilled out of two boxes. "We like to eat them," said the 32-year-old father of three, "and I share with my neighbors."

Most mornings Morales tends the corn, fruit trees and melons on his plot at the city's largest community garden. The produce he and his wife grow adds fresh food to family meals. But Morales, who drives an ice cream truck, says he comes as much for the fresh air, the soothing greenery and the chirping birds -- all rare in the city's truck-choked industrial heart. This leafy oasis in South Los Angeles is in jeopardy at a moment when the city needs more such refuges.

Some 300 urban farmers spade the soil at 41st and Alameda streets, a garden created 11 years ago by the Los Angeles Food Bank. Most are poor immigrants like Morales and Maria Navarro, who uses the aloe and alfalfa leaves she grows to ease back pains and stomach troubles.

City planners often labor mightily to create the happy alchemy -- the mingling of people of different ages and cultures -- that blooms spontaneously at this site. No public money went into the creation of the garden.

But neither is the 13-acre garden generating much in property tax revenue for the county or income for its owner, developer Ralph Horowitz. Howoritz owned the site in the mid-1980s when the city condemned it for a trash-burning plant. When local residents killed that plan, the city lent the land to the food bank for a community garden. The original gardeners, the food bank and city officials all knew the arrangement was temporary. Horowitz has since reacquired the site and plans to build warehouses, creating jobs in a community with 50% unemployment. He's also agreed to donate space for soccer fields or other recreation uses.

Morales, Navarro and the others know they will probably have to leave by Dec. 1. They want to stay. They've petitioned their council member, Jan Perry, to get the city or a nonprofit agency to buy the land. Perry says that's "highly unlikely."

It's unlikely as well that they will find another vacant site as large as this one for a new garden. Most of the 60 community gardens around Los Angeles are just an acre or two. But if she works with the growing network of creative open space activists, Perry can find new homes for these enterprising green thumbs. At Perry's request, the city will quickly identify other potential garden sites -- vacant government land or land that the public could buy. The Trust for Public Land has a strong track record of doing these deals, and a new Neighborhood Oasis Land Trust, focusing on local greening projects, is just getting organized. If nothing else, the garden should remind us how important these urban havens are to all residents.

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