THE HOLLYWOOD PITCH PRACTICALLY writes itself: It’s “Field of Dreams” meets “Norma Rae.” A beautiful garden sprouts next to the train tracks in one of the ugliest stretches of urban blight anywhere. But when a villainous developer takes control of the land and threatens to pave it over, a group of scrappy campesinos vows to fight him all the way to City Hall, finally chaining themselves to trees as the bulldozers move in. Daryl Hannah and Laura Dern star.
Does that sound like the feel-good hit of the summer or what? Of course, the finale of the movie version of events at the South Los Angeles community garden will have to be changed -- in real life, police and sheriff’s deputies kicked Hannah out of a walnut tree on Tuesday, arrested dozens of people and sent the rest home. Hardly a Hollywood ending. And the fact that the villain of the piece, developer Ralph Horowitz, is entirely within his rights will have to be tweaked a bit.
Like most real-life stories, the battle over the 14-acre community garden at 41st and Alameda streets is a good deal more complicated than a movie. Yet it holds an unusual fascination for a bevy of celebrities, whose love of a good story seems to have gotten in the way of their common sense. Besides Hannah and Dern, the likes of Danny Glover, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ed Harris and Martin Sheen have helped turn the national media spotlight on this arcane local land dispute.
Using eminent domain, the city seized the plot in question from Horowitz in 1986 for a trash incinerator that never got built. After the 1992 riots, the city leased the land to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which began allowing farmers to grow food on the property. After tangled legal proceedings, Horowitz bought the land back in 2003 for about $5 million. The city put together a deal between a nonprofit trust and the Annenberg Foundation last week to meet Horowitz’s $16.3-million asking price for a 10-acre portion, but he still refused to sell. The cops arrived Tuesday to remove the farmers -- and the stars.
Horowitz’s actions will not qualify him for a humanitarian of the year award. But it’s still his land, and that means he can sell it to whomever he chooses.
The main argument of the protesters seems to be that because the farmers have been squatting for more than a decade on property they don’t own, they have earned the right to stay there permanently. One wonders how the luminaries joining the protests would react if urban farmers camped out full time on their assorted Malibu or Hollywood Hills estates.
Some good may yet come from this embarrassing brouhaha. The farmers are being relocated to a 7.8-acre plot in South L.A., and the city has identified 100 other plots that could be used for community gardens. The funds raised to buy Horowitz’s parcel should still become seed money elsewhere.