Green Dreams

When photographer Don Normark made the first of five visits to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank Urban Garden to take these pictures, all hell was breaking loose. It was February 2003. The city that had given 330 of its poorest families a place to grow their food was taking the garden away. Six months earlier, it had sold the 14-acre South Los Angeles property to a Westside developer. The gardeners' councilwoman had disowned them, their patrons at the food bank had accepted the eviction and the deadline to move was the end of the month.

The gardeners hired a lawyer, locked out their food bank patrons and, while they were at it, jettisoned the term "gardeners." They were now "urban farmers," thank you, who for the last year have marched twice a week to City Hall chorusing Cesar Chavez's 1972 battle cry, "Si, se puede!" ("Yes, it can be done!").

As the struggle intensified, they sought out Normark to record it. Half a century earlier, he had chronicled life in Chavez Ravine, earning what he ruefully describes as "honorary Chicano" status. Last February, the food bank farmers asked him to turn his lens to what they regard as L.A.'s new Latino heartland.

Uuntil the eviction, this was the largest urban garden in North America that nobody had ever heard of. Only an urban sprawl such as L.A. is capable of failing to notice a farm the size of 14 football fields in its midst. In 1986, using powers of eminent domain, the city had seized the lot it occupies from Westside property developer Ralph Horowitz to build a Los Angeles City Energy Recovery (LANCER) trash-to-energy incineration project. When this plan was defeated the following year by the indignant, largely African American community group Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank had front-row seats. It had moved to the warehouse next door to the lot in 1984.

Its now-retired executive director Doris Bloch recalls, "There were broken-down buildings, vermin, tire fires, people living on the property in the most abominable conditions." Bad turned to worse. In 1992, the area's supermarkets burned after the Rodney King verdict. In the wake of the riots, Bloch asked the city to hand over the land for a community garden. The ancestors of the Latino immigrants standing in her food lines had domesticated corn from wild grass, given the world tomatoes, peppers and cocoa. They didn't need handouts, she thought. They needed land.

When she got the key that year, not everyone was happy. As Juanita Tate of Concerned Citizens of South Central saw it, black people saved the LANCER site and brown people got it.

By the time Tate died of a stroke last July, she was so bitter on the subject, her remarks remain unprintable. Yet she had a point. A Russian and a Filipino are among the 330 plot holders, but the garden was never inclusive. From the start, Latinos controlled who got the plots, where they got them, and generally ran the place--in Spanish. Rubble was cleared. The soil was turned by pick and shovel. Fencing was fashioned from scraps of chain link, meeting areas from plastic crates and abandoned office furniture. As plots were laid out, paths running between them were named: "Granada Street," "Quayaba North," "Izote South."

The plants sown only intensified the otherworldliness of the place. Corn was used to trellis beans and nasturtiums in the Central American manner. There were chayote and passion vines, amaranth, jimson weed and row after row of cactus, or nopales, grown for the cool flesh inside.

They planted fruit trees familiar to North Americans--citrus and peaches and plums--but more often they chose strange specimens with peeling bark and extravagant leaves. These were lemon guavas. The garden even smelled different. The perplexing scent hanging over the place came from a leafy green herb, papalo quelite. Grown from seeds carried in knapsacks from Mexico, it tastes like a cross between watercress and sorrell.

As the urban farmers barbecued, played dominos and formed a produce market, the garden became a magnet. James Rojas, an organizer with the Latino Urban Forum, calls it "a pueblo."

From the start, it was supposed to be a pueblo with a sell-by date. The lease that Bloch had extracted from the city was temporary. The first brush with extinction came in 1994, when the city transferred the property to the Harbor Department for development of the Alameda Corridor, a rail system from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach to the warehouses on the fringes of downtown.

When the harbor scarcely touched the place, the land's former owner, Horowitz, sued the city. He argued that he was guaranteed rights of first refusal if the property was ever sold, and that the transfer to the Harbor Department constituted a sale. Last summer, he prevailed. In a closed-door transaction, the property for which the city paid a shade under $4.8 million in 1986 was sold back to Horowitz for a little more than $5 million. In return, he agreed to donate enough land for a soccer field.

Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry had only so much sympathy for the farmers. She promised to find them other land, maybe not the full 14 acres, maybe only 10, maybe 9 1/2 , but she also distanced herself. "They come from everywhere," she said. "A lot of the gardeners come from other council districts." The interests of her constituents, she maintained, were best represented by Tate of Concerned Citizens, who railed against the farmers' "reign" on the site, and said that Horowitz's proposed warehouse would bring jobs.

Her assumptions brought a quick reality check; a food bank survey found that half of the farmers were in fact Ninth District residents. And it didn't amuse them that they were invisible.

Enter a young Mexican so bent on firing up Meso American pride that he rejected his Hispanic name in favor of the pre-Conquest Nahuatl name "Tezozomoc." He only took over his plot recently, after his father had a stroke. He never knew Bloch, who had retired four years earlier. He decided that the food bank had become an "agent of the city," and helped organize the farmers to lock it out.

Next: War. "The first battle was the linguistic battle," he says. "We are not in the business of leisure of the traditional American perspective of gardening. We're not in that situation. We're in the situation where people grow food." They also got a lawyer, Dan Stormer of the Pasadena firm Hadsell & Stormer.

The case may go to trial as early as December. When it does, Stormer will argue that the transfer of the property was not a sale. Because the Harbor Department is part of the city government, "no money changed hands," he says.

Moreover, Stormer insists that by selling the property to Horowitz for the 1986 price, when the property's estimated value is now $15 million, the city not only evicted 330 of its poorest families, it gave a millionaire a $10-million gift. To Horowitz, after a 12-year free ride, the farmers now want an indefinite one. If anyone's the victim, he says, it's him. "I'm paying the insurance, I'm paying the taxes, I'm making the mortgage payments," he says.

Councilwoman Jan Perry never did find an alternative site, though Tezozomoc says they were shown a paved three-quarter-acre lot at 58th and Wall streets. Perry's press officer says talks are being held with the City of Huntington Park about potential sites there, and there is some discussion of using city buildings to develop rooftop gardens.

After arriving at the garden in the middle of the storm, Normark says he photographed "the placards and stuff" because they were there. But when editing the film, what struck him wasn't the crisis but the gritty exoticism of the place, the sheer grace of people living among plants.

He had a rare subject: South American farming in a North American city in a garden fashioned from scrap and hope.

Photographs by Don Normark and Don Rogers of the urban farmers will be at Gallery 727, 727 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, (213) 627-9563, from Nov. 20-Dec. 18.

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