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Some Koreatown residents cultivate more than produce at community garden

More than 10 years after gardening began on the site, neighbors celebrate the first anniversary of the purchase of the plot by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust.

July 19, 2009|Victoria Kim

Ask Genara Paxtor about her corn stalks, and her sun-baked face breaks into a wide grin as she tosses up her chin and gestures to indicate just how large they've grown.

Six months ago, Paxtor began cultivating a patch of earth in the Francis Avenue Community Garden, a small, lush space in the otherwise densely populated Koreatown neighborhood. The 43-year-old is also growing tomatoes, peppers, onions and radishes.

Saturday, the neighborhood gardeners celebrated the one-year anniversary of the garden's purchase by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust. Although the garden had long been informally cultivated, the Land Trust purchase ensured that the plot would always exist for public use.

For Paxtor and others, produce isn't the only thing that they have cultivated. The garden has given neighbors new friends and a sense of community.

Every day at about 5 p.m., women from the neighborhood gather at the garden to drink coffee and tea, cook spontaneous meals and talk for hours as the sunlight fades and neon signs begin flickering on in neighboring strip malls.

They celebrate birthdays together with colorful pinatas and paper flowers and welcome newcomers to the neighborhood. Their children play and chase after the free-roaming roosters, hens and chicks.

"It feels like . . . home," said 14-year-old Veneza Cordova.

Today, the 0.15-acre plot is lined with banana, peach and loquat trees, sugar cane, angel's trumpets, canna lilies, birds of paradise, hibiscus and bougainvillea. Strawberries and tomatoes are beginning to show a hint of a blushing red, and bright yellow squash flowers are in full bloom.

But when the garden began more than 10 years ago, it was a deserted lot overgrown with weeds and strewn with rubble, garbage and abandoned furniture.

The sight saddened Priscilla Yablon, who worked at a retirement home up the street and drove past the abandoned lot day after day.

Yablon, a Bronx transplant, tracked down the owner, who gave her permission to garden the land as long as she cleaned it up. She went around knocking on doors: a Unitarian church up the street, a nearby elementary school and at the homes of the lot's immigrant neighbors. With $500 in seed money from then-councilman Nate Holden, they plucked weeds, cleared out cement blocks and pulled car batteries out of the soil.

Change came slowly. Language barriers made it difficult for the garden's organizers to reach out to the neighborhood's Korean and Latino residents.

But the vegetables planted in one corner of the plot began to take, and carrots, cabbages and squashes started growing. A wooden shelter was built in one corner of the plot, and volunteers began offering arts and crafts sessions, guitar lessons and women's empowerment groups.

The garden soon took on a life of its own.

Marta Servin, a mother of three who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, recalled how she saw a group of people cleaning up at the lot nearly a decade ago, and volunteered to help.

"Since that day, I never left," said Servin, 43, who is now one of the garden's central organizers. "You feel like it's yours, that it's a part of you."

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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