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'Not a Cornfield' Idea Is Food for Thought

It's fresh, but is it art? Some say the concept is over their heads -- as the growing stalks of largely inedible kernels soon will be.

September 12, 2005|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

The corn is growing.

Rows of it are rising from the dirt right on schedule at the Not a Cornfield project, a 32-acre, $3-million art installation taking root this summer at Los Angeles State Historic Park north of downtown.

The growing plants -- hundreds of thousands of them -- are turning what once was an abandoned rail yard in the industrial flatlands near Chinatown into a sea of cornstalks that sway and shift in the breezes.

Soon the stalks will rise taller than most adults' heads, obscuring views of the neighboring warehouses from the field's central pathway.

The vast conceptual art piece is meant to serve both as a point of celebration for the multiethnic history of Los Angeles' old core and a beacon for downtown's gradual revitalization.

But where corn stops being corn and becomes an important artwork is leaving some visitors a little stumped.

"It's very low-key, kind of conceptual, so it's kind of hard for people to understand," said Pasadena resident Ellen Biasin, 57, who visited last week with her 15-year-old son, Alexander, and her father, Nobe Kawano, 82.

"I don't know what to say about it," said Kawano, a Boyle Heights old-timer who currently lives near Dodger Stadium. He thought for a moment. "It looks nice, though."

Biasin and her family were among the few who visited the site in recent weeks as the field has gradually transformed from a brown wasteland into the living green mass that Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Bon envisioned.

Launched quietly in late July, the Not a Cornfield project has not captured the public's imagination like other large-scale public art events in the United States, such as Christo's "The Gates" in New York or Millennium Park in Chicago.

The city's fractured, centerless nature might be partly responsible for that, said Bon, a trustee of the Annenberg Foundation, which funded the project.

But it also may be that the nature of the project itself is to blame for its lack of buzz, she and others have said. There was no lavish, media-saturated opening-night party. The first seeds were planted at dawn after an all-night vigil and a Native American ceremony meant to request Earth's permission to plant in it. Instead of swarms of tourists, there are drum circles, corn-planting sessions and small film screenings.

Corn, a longtime staple grown since the pueblo days in the neighborhoods surrounding the new state park, feels inconspicuous here. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, freight lines hauling corn oil reached their terminus here, along with passenger lines bringing Italian, Croatian, Irish and other migrants from the Midwest and East Coast.

Historians are not quite sure how the area got its nickname, the Cornfields. But a long local struggle in the late 1990s to preserve the site as open space dredged up a sense that the Cornfields, along with the Taylor Yards on the opposite bank of the Los Angeles River, deserved to be preserved as places where the often overlooked early chapters of the city's history were written in the dirt.

Just how to interpret those chapters of history, though, has been a point of contention.

For some Latino community activists, led by Robert Garcia of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, the Not a Cornfield project does little to address the area's history of discrimination against the city's first Mexican and Chinese immigrants.

They also say the project delays construction of the long-awaited public parks there and at Taylor Yards, among the few urban lands managed by the California State Parks Department.

The project, some contend, was approved through hastily called and poorly publicized public meetings.

Even state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), an early supporter, said in an interview this week that the process for approving the project was flawed.

Backers of the project point out that tight state budgets are what's holding up the park. After the corn is harvested around the end of October, the Annenberg Foundation will leave behind irrigation systems, lighting, pathways, and better soil.

The project was endorsed by a wide array of business, arts, and community leaders from the Solano Canyon, Elysian Valley, Chinatown and downtown communities. Many were members of the original Cornfield State Park Advisory Committee, formed to determine a plan for the future park.

Solano Canyon community activist Alicia Brown, who's lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years, said Garcia and his allies don't represent the residents who live nearest to the Cornfields. The Not a Cornfield project, Brown said, brings hope to her neighborhood.

These days, as the carpet of emerald stalks rises from the ground, the wonder of the sight seems to cancel any political and cultural debates that linger on the periphery.

The new corn is attracting sky-diving sparrows and shimmering dragonflies.

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