In Highland Park, tomatoes amid the graffiti


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Community gardens dispatch No. 2: Milagro Allegro, Highland Park

The Milagro Allegro community garden in the Highland Park neighborhood of northeast L.A. is young and small but already something of an urban showpiece. Barely 10,000 square feet, the garden’s 32 plots surround a central meeting area -- a ring of stools built out of river rock. In July, the garden was one of a few L.A. sites visited by the American Horticultural Society’s National Children and Youth Garden Symposium, a nod to Milagro Allegro’s successful L.A. Sprouts study in which USC and UCLA researchers studied the effect of gardening, nutrition and cooking classes on Latino children.

The garden is on an alley off Avenue 56 near Figueroa Street, in the heart of the historic neighborhood behind the Highland movie theater, whose 40-foot-high wall presents an ever-changing (and sanctioned) canvas for graffiti artists.


For 30 years the land had been vacant Department of Transportation property. In late 2007, neighbors Oscar Durado and Nicole Gatto decided to transform the fenced-in, weed-choked lot into a compact garden that blends art and education. It took a lot of preparation, but finally in early 2009, 37 fruit trees were planted; three months later the first gardeners began working on their plots.

“She’s a midwife at Kaiser and a chef,” Gatto says of one plot as we walk through the garden. “This is a young neighborhood couple. They asked to get married here.

‘This is a mother-son pair.

‘This woman is in an apartment.

‘These are Burning Man folks and they’re also big on Day of the Dead, so they grow huge pumpkins. They were beginners.’

The Burning Man gardeners have a small-scale replica of the Burning Man in their plot, which, like the majority of spaces, is weed-free and well-tended.

Gatto offers details of herself as well: southern Italian, Capricorn, professor in epidemiology at UCLA and a relative newcomer to the neighborhood. She and her sister bought a house on Avenue 56 in 2004. Her background is in public health, and when the idea of Milagro Allegro began taking shape, she realized it could be defined as a community intervention project. As a recent Ph.D. candidate, she knew how to write grant proposals and work a bureaucratic structure.

Durado has been here since 1967 -- a silkscreen artist and part of the local art scene here and downtown in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He had built trails for the California Conservation Corps and knew something about transforming land.


It was a match made in heaven.

Durado says he was a little disappointed by the initial application for plots. They got only about 60 applications, not the hundreds he had expected. But interest has grown, he says.

“People have seen what a 12-foot-high sunflower looks like,’ he says. ‘There was nothing here before and now they can see what’s possible. And sometimes it has nothing to do with plants but just people wanting to socialize, make new friends. It’s using the context of gardening to create community. This little plot of dirt can create this great interaction.” The garden also can create anxiety, he says.

It has a five-year lease with a two-year option from the city. Each gardener has a two-year term, after which the plot goes to someone else via a lottery. Some of the first-year gardeners are coming up for renewal next spring, and they’re not happy about it. The plots are hard things to give up.

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photo, top: Vegetables and graffiti, both sanctioned. Credit: Nicole Gatto.

Photo, middle: A mini Burning Man on one Milagro Allegro plot. Credit: Jeff Spurrier.

Photo, bottom: A cat nap in the garden. Credit: Jeff Spurrier.



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