L.A. Should Cultivate This Rare Urban Seed

Robert Gottlieb is director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. James Rojas is the chair of the Latino Urban Forum.

Last week, a court injunction kept alive an unusual idea in Los Angeles: that urban property is worth more than its value in dollar profits, that it can nourish the body, the mind and a sense of community.

The Superior Court allowed about 350 families that had cultivated 14 acres at 41st and Alameda to keep on gardening -- at least until they got a hearing on their suit for permanent control of the fruit trees, vegetables and flowers, an oasis that has breathed life into an otherwise desolate area of South Los Angeles for more than a decade.

The garden has a complicated history. It was claimed by the city through eminent domain as the site of a proposed waste incinerator in 1986. But the incinerator plan was shelved, and over the years the property’s original owner, Ralph Horowitz, sued to regain it. The city settled in 2003, selling the site back to him for about what it had paid more than a decade earlier. Now Horowitz wants to build warehouses on the land. The gardeners, to whom L.A. had lent the land, are fighting back.

Last week’s injunction essentially takes Los Angeles, Horowitz and the gardeners back to square one. Still, for the gardeners, it was a victory, a validation of what they’d built.


In fact, the garden is an inspirational story -- about urban environmentalism, livable cities and the creation of community. Under the auspices of the Los Angeles Food Bank, a group of mostly Latino immigrants, with annual incomes of less than $20,000, built what is now one of the most impressive community gardens in the nation.

The land, about the equivalent of 14 football fields, was divvied up, tilled and fertilized. Narrow pathways separate the plots; vines form canopies from one garden to the next; birds and butterflies abound; the garden is a source of food, shade and recreation, and police records show that it is essentially drug, gang and graffiti free.

On weekends, the garden typically draws as many users as some city parks, and last year it was the site of a one-day fair featuring 100 food and plant vendors, musicians and folklorico dancers. According to gardener Rufina Juarez, “It’s a place where people come together and share their knowledge about farming the land in hopes of building a better future for themselves and their children.”

But how should we weigh the gardeners’ achievement against the prerogatives of the property owner and the city? Can all sides win?


Yes. For starters, the land should be rezoned as open space, a showcase for urban farming and recreation. The city should help Horowitz relocate. His attachment is not to this particular 14 acres but to his planned warehouse development. City Council members already tried to find another site suitable for the gardeners and came up empty. But potential sites for warehouse development are more plentiful, and the city has the means to find one, perhaps on land it already owns.

Finally, Los Angeles, famous for its deficit of parks and greenbelts, should take this opportunity to establish a community-garden and open-space policy for its urban core. It should explicitly recognize the need for permanent gardens, rather than merely allowing them to occupy land not being used in other ways.

Many of the mechanisms are already in place. For instance, the city should expand its support of the new Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, whose mission is to purchase land in the city for open space. It should create tax incentive programs, set aside a portion of vacant city land and require garden plots in city housing schemes. It should establish goals: at least one community garden in every City Council district, say, or in every neighborhood council jurisdiction.

The garden at 41st and Alameda ought to be not just preserved but replicated. It’s a very different kind of “urban renewal” project. It has fed the poor and created community. The seed has been planted; all Los Angeles has to do is keep it watered and then watch it grow.