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Community Garden Faces Seed of Doubt

Times Staff Writer

In a neighborhood of decaying, ill-tended homes and graffiti-scarred walls, one strip of land along Union Street is divided into neat plots of tilled land, spotted with fruit trees and fecund with all sorts of greenery.

Small hands plant and pick vegetables once a week. For classes from nearby 10th Street Elementary School, the plot is an outdoor science laboratory and a provider of healthy snacks.

To others, it is real estate. And it might be sold out from under the children and neighbors who keep it lush.

Five years ago, residents in the Pico-Union neighborhood descended upon a grimy stretch of land, 38-feet wide, between 11th Place and 12th Street. Volunteers hauled away junked cars and shoveled truckloads of manure to rejuvenate the oil-soaked topsoil.

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Under the auspices of Common Grounds, a federally funded group that has helped organize 10 similar community gardens in Los Angeles, the neighbors divvied the site into small family plots, with four going to the school. Now, apples, plums, peaches, lemons, limes, vegetables and herbs grow in the garden.

“You ought to see them when they bloom,” said Arturo Sanchez, a neighbor who manages the garden and lovingly points out its features. “Beautiful.”

Since 1983, the neighbors’ consortium has rented the land from the city for a fee of $1 per year--which has been waived. Two developers recently approached the Community Redevelopment Agency, which owns the parcel, with plans to build on the site.

“We are looking at that possibility,” said William Price, the agency’s acting project manager for the area. “There is a great need for housing in the Pico-Union area.”

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Neighbors don’t think so--at least not at the expense of the garden. More than 200 people have signed petitions asking the agency not to sell the land. City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, whose district includes the garden, has taken their side.

“We will do everything possible . . . to preserve that space for the community,” said Alma Martinez, the councilwoman’s chief of staff.

Martinez said there are better sites for housing in the area, such as abandoned buildings, vacant lots and tenements. Molina is working to get the land designated permanently as a community garden, Martinez said, and expects to announce a proposal within the next two weeks.

Others feel the same way. “It’s just a shame to see the kids lose out,” said a woman who stopped to watch children working in the garden. “It’s important.”

The garden is treasured by grown-ups, too; Sanchez said there are more families interested in using the garden than there is space.

Each of eight family patches provides about $500 worth of produce a year, according to Karen Neal, who oversees the school’s participation in the garden. That’s produce that might not otherwise be bought, Neal said; 98% of the school’s students receive free breakfast and lunch because their parents make less than $9,000 a year.

Revitalize the Area

Pointing toward a long thicket of vines, heavy with squash, she said: “You don’t buy it if it’s 98 cents a pound; but (here) it’s all along the wall.”

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Neal said the garden is helping to revitalize the area. After it was planted, children painted murals over graffiti on nearby walls. And some owners have begun sprucing up their buildings, she said. “It’s the best for the area,” agreed Raimundo Rodriguez, who has run a convenience store across the street for 18 years. He said drug dealers have stopped hanging out at the corner since the neighborhood has cleaned itself up.

Thursday, two classes of second-graders toiled in their plots. Children hoed away at the fallow soil. There was more effort than result. Others climbed on playground equipment in a grassy spot in the garden.

Children ooohed and aaahed as Sanchez held up a grasshopper.

“Does he help you?” someone asked.

“No,” Sanchez replied. “He’s trouble; he eats.”


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