‘Not a Cornfield’ Idea Is Food for Thought

Times Staff Writer

The corn is growing.

Rows of it are rising from the dirt right on schedule at the Not a Cornfield project, a 32-acre, $3-million art installation taking root this summer at Los Angeles State Historic Park north of downtown.

The growing plants -- hundreds of thousands of them -- are turning what once was an abandoned rail yard in the industrial flatlands near Chinatown into a sea of cornstalks that sway and shift in the breezes.

Soon the stalks will rise taller than most adults’ heads, obscuring views of the neighboring warehouses from the field’s central pathway.


The vast conceptual art piece is meant to serve both as a point of celebration for the multiethnic history of Los Angeles’ old core and a beacon for downtown’s gradual revitalization.

But where corn stops being corn and becomes an important artwork is leaving some visitors a little stumped.

“It’s very low-key, kind of conceptual, so it’s kind of hard for people to understand,” said Pasadena resident Ellen Biasin, 57, who visited last week with her 15-year-old son, Alexander, and her father, Nobe Kawano, 82.

“I don’t know what to say about it,” said Kawano, a Boyle Heights old-timer who currently lives near Dodger Stadium. He thought for a moment. “It looks nice, though.”

Biasin and her family were among the few who visited the site in recent weeks as the field has gradually transformed from a brown wasteland into the living green mass that Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Bon envisioned.

Launched quietly in late July, the Not a Cornfield project has not captured the public’s imagination like other large-scale public art events in the United States, such as Christo’s “The Gates” in New York or Millennium Park in Chicago.

The city’s fractured, centerless nature might be partly responsible for that, said Bon, a trustee of the Annenberg Foundation, which funded the project.

But it also may be that the nature of the project itself is to blame for its lack of buzz, she and others have said. There was no lavish, media-saturated opening-night party. The first seeds were planted at dawn after an all-night vigil and a Native American ceremony meant to request Earth’s permission to plant in it. Instead of swarms of tourists, there are drum circles, corn-planting sessions and small film screenings.

Corn, a longtime staple grown since the pueblo days in the neighborhoods surrounding the new state park, feels inconspicuous here. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, freight lines hauling corn oil reached their terminus here, along with passenger lines bringing Italian, Croatian, Irish and other migrants from the Midwest and East Coast.

Historians are not quite sure how the area got its nickname, the Cornfields. But a long local struggle in the late 1990s to preserve the site as open space dredged up a sense that the Cornfields, along with the Taylor Yards on the opposite bank of the Los Angeles River, deserved to be preserved as places where the often overlooked early chapters of the city’s history were written in the dirt.

Just how to interpret those chapters of history, though, has been a point of contention.

For some Latino community activists, led by Robert Garcia of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, the Not a Cornfield project does little to address the area’s history of discrimination against the city’s first Mexican and Chinese immigrants.

They also say the project delays construction of the long-awaited public parks there and at Taylor Yards, among the few urban lands managed by the California State Parks Department.

The project, some contend, was approved through hastily called and poorly publicized public meetings.

Even state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), an early supporter, said in an interview this week that the process for approving the project was flawed.

Backers of the project point out that tight state budgets are what’s holding up the park. After the corn is harvested around the end of October, the Annenberg Foundation will leave behind irrigation systems, lighting, pathways, and better soil.

The project was endorsed by a wide array of business, arts, and community leaders from the Solano Canyon, Elysian Valley, Chinatown and downtown communities. Many were members of the original Cornfield State Park Advisory Committee, formed to determine a plan for the future park.

Solano Canyon community activist Alicia Brown, who’s lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years, said Garcia and his allies don’t represent the residents who live nearest to the Cornfields. The Not a Cornfield project, Brown said, brings hope to her neighborhood.

These days, as the carpet of emerald stalks rises from the ground, the wonder of the sight seems to cancel any political and cultural debates that linger on the periphery.

The new corn is attracting sky-diving sparrows and shimmering dragonflies.

Packs of crows are surveying the scene, stopping for rest on a patch of grass where wind-borne seeds are sprouting. The young students who work as docents at the site call it “renegade corn,” and quietly root for the rebellious stalks.

Gradually, people are coming, too. Most are Angeleno cityfolk like Biasin and her family, people who are generally unaccustomed to the sight of produce still stuck in the ground, surrounded by warehouses and railroad tracks.

And despite initial puzzlement over the purpose of the art, over time, for people such as Biasin, the corn seems to make sense.

“You know, during World War II, when they had those Victory Gardens, they said 40% of the produce came from the Victory Gardens, so it is possible,” Biasin said while watching the field rustle for a bit. “And with the whole problem with the oil shortage, we can’t afford to keep shipping stuff from Chile and wherever else we’re getting it from, when we can grow it perfectly well in our own home.”

Most of the Not a Cornfield corn, however, is not meant to be edible.

Bon said the corn is decorative and will be displayed -- all 2 million expected ears of it -- at an exhibit at the old Capital Milling building nearby.

Near the “eye” of the field, farmers have been tending a circular patch of hand-planted edible corn, squash, and string beans. The fruits are planted in “the Hopi tradition,” said docent Alma Torres, 24. “They’re known as the Three Sisters, which they believed were the three sisters that sustained life.”

In a few weeks, Torres, the rest of the site staff, and anyone else who might want to, will eat the vegetables.

Those less inclined to visit or eat the art can watch the field grow on the “Corn Cam” at the Not a Cornfield website,

The farmers and docents, most of them young students from the surrounding neighborhoods, have watched every day, close up.

They dig into the land with the sun darkening the backs of their necks and offer contemplative explanations for the corn’s cosmic pull.

“Some grow fast, some grow slow,” said Jose Perez, 17, a Lincoln High School student working as a “junior gardener” at the site. “In Mexico I used to plant beans and rice with my grandmother.”

He pondered this for a moment and said: “It’s about the same. Nothing different. Same routine.”

“It’s a space for spiritual healing. People come here ... and just chill,” said Ernie Limon, 21, of Highland Park. He shook up some earth with a pick, as he and other gardeners do in weekly planting tours.

“It’s back to basics,” he said.

Elementary school teacher Marco Flores, 39, has watched the corn grow in recent weeks while driving by on his way to work.

“When you tell kids about corn, they don’t even know what it is, where it comes from,” Flores said.

Flores was speaking on a recent morning after breakfast at Nick’s Cafe, a breakfast diner across from the Not a Cornfield site on North Spring Street.

“If it’s industrial or this, I’d rather see this,” he said.

But among many of the regulars at Nick’s, an early-morning gathering point for firefighters, police officers and city workers, the cornfield still bewilders.

Most were nervous about being named but had plenty to say.

“All I see is money,” said one city worker who identified himself as Steve. “Three million dollars? You could’ve bought a Van Gogh for that.... You could’ve put something useful in there.”