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To civic leaders, little farm isn’t a growth industry

A deadline will come and go today, but hardly anyone will notice, except the urban farmers of South L.A. and maybe some others who care more about people than they do about money.

If someone doesn’t come up with $10 million by the time the sun sets in a corner of the glowing Pacific, the man who owns 14 acres of greenery, food and hope will probably build his planned warehouse on what has been fields of growth.

In the grand scheme of things, this won’t even cause a ripple of hesitation in the forward thrust of a booming culture. No one’s making a lot of money planting carrots and rhubarb, so who’s going to miss it? Who cares?

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Well, I do, for one.

Although real estate investor Ralph Horowitz comes by his land legitimately and profits by the stupidity of civic government, one wishes that by some act of awesome charity he’d find a way to allow the working poor of South-Central to continue farming.

With the help of the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, the farmers have gathered or been pledged or leveraged about $6 million, most of it from one anonymous donor, but so far have failed to come up with the last big chunk. Horowitz has given them until today to do so, and today is fading fast.

The garden’s history and its probable demise are rooted in the city’s primary indecision and its ultimate bumbling, not to mention an amazing inability to profit from that bumbling. They blew it all the way around.

The land, a relatively small plot in a vigorous industrial district, was acquired by the city from Horowitz for $4.8 million in the mid-1980s by employing the power of eminent domain. The idea was to build a trash-burning plant, but like so many other civic projects, the plan never materialized.

After years of indecision, the 14-acre plot was turned over to the L.A. Regional Food Bank, which then gave it over to local residents as a community garden in a token of pacification following the 1992 riots. It has been a garden ever since. Horowitz mounted a legal challenge a few years ago and the city, in its best the-people-be-damned mode, sold it back to him for $5 million during a private meeting. Legal challenges have failed to overturn the sale.

So the city breaks even, Horowitz stands to triple his investment, and the urban farmers, who have worked the land for 13 years, end up with nothing, not even a cabbage patch. But at least the community of mostly Latinos has a better idea of where it stands in the body politic of L.A.

I went out to the garden the other day to take what is probably a last look at a unique effort by industrious people to feed themselves, to help others and maybe make a few bucks by selling the stuff they’ve grown by the sweat of their brow. It’s an unexpected garden that suddenly appears amid the calamity of commercial progress, an emerald island in a sea of industrial gray.

There’s an occasional blast of horns as Metro trains streak by the unexpected garden and the roar of large trucks that link chains of commerce stretching along the Alameda Corridor, from the industrial district to the city towers in the distance.

There are 360 plots in the garden, filled with just about anything you can name. Banana palms and peach trees that have matured during the life of the farm wave in ambient breezes. Onions, sugar cane, Swiss chard, potatoes, snow peas, corn and berries grow in small patches of random greenery. The place was a junkyard once, and now it bears manna as a result of the earth’s generosity and the toil of the men, women and children who have worked the land.

Samuel Sanchez, a 23-year-old student, showed me the plot he and his girlfriend operate for kids in the neighborhood. As many as 20 children come by on the weekend to plant, dig and have fun with arts and crafts. They’ve painted signs on trash cans that say, “Don’t take away our dream.”

But dreams constitute vaporous notions of hope that don’t hold up in a society that honors private property over community needs. The priorities of a nation built on free enterprise protect the rights of those who have managed to acquire wealth and know how to use it.

Sadly, there are no miracles. Once regarded as such, fire, weather, stars and planets have been dutifully defined and cataloged in a quest to understand our environment and our surroundings. Rain falls not due to praying and dancing but to climatic conditions. Faces in the clouds vanish in the passing breezes.

But, still ... if you have $10 million to spare, you might rush out to the unexpected garden before the sun goes down on the ocean dreams and ponder the efficacy of a patch of green in the dark gray ornamentation of industrial America.

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Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He’s at al.martinez@latimes.com.


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