IT WOULD BE NICE TO KEEP the South Central Community Garden, an island of lush kitchen crops covering 14 acres amid the industrial warehouses, packing plants and junkyards that stretch for miles in a seemingly endless sweep along Alameda Street. It would be nice if the owner of the land, Ralph Horowitz, agreed to sell the property back to the city or a third party rather than insist on plowing under the greenery to build yet another warehouse. It certainly would be nice for people who live in the drab, concrete-and-asphalt neighborhood around the garden to finally have a park and a soccer field, or maybe a chance at a garden plot of their own. And it would be nice if Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could succeed in brokering an agreement that makes everyone happy.
There are lots of things that would be nice. But the land belongs to Horowitz, and he has every right to kick out the people who have been squatting there for more than a decade. The gardeners, or farmers (be careful; your choice of wording apparently defines your position on property rights, racial oppression, environmental justice and City Hall incompetence, at least according to some players in the controversy) have made their plots into a special, almost magical, place. But no magic is so strong that it erases a landowner’s right to either his property or its fair value.
Not that this case is simple. It’s a mess. The land was Horowitz’s in 1980, but City Hall forced him to sell so it could build a trash incinerator. Turns out that -- surprise! -- no one in the neighborhood was excited about the project. So the City Council was forced to kill the plan, and the city was left with the empty land. Then the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank asked to turn the acreage into a community garden. Sure, City Hall replied -- for now. The gardeners/farmers then fought with the food bank. City Hall transferred the land to the Harbor Department. Horowitz sued to get it back. The crops grew.
That’s not even the complicated part. The bottom line is that the courts ruled for Horowitz. Now the farmers/gardeners march weekly on City Hall, spouting revolutionary rhetoric to nods of approval from Westside environmentalists. That’s politics. But any agreement that again denies Horowitz his property should compensate him fairly and leave the city not with a private farm but a true community space open to all. Any action by the city to spend the public’s money or give away its assets -- whether it’s the purchase of the two-plus acres that Horowitz agreed to dedicate for soccer fields or the seizure of private businesses for a luxury hotel-condo-retail development at L.A.'s most famous intersection -- must be open and aboveboard.
And if the farmers can’t reach a deal with Horowitz, the time to dig in is over. It’s time to go, and time for City Hall to learn from its mistakes.