First it was the rebel Abbie Zands, in Los Feliz, who ran afoul of L.A. City Hall. A few weeks later, Angel Teger of South Los Angeles incurred the wrath of the great bureaucracy.
They planted lush vegetable gardens in front of their homes, and they shared their bounty -- eggplant, melons, tomatoes, squash and more -- with their neighbors.
And the city said cease and desist.
Does this sound familiar?
It should. Almost exactly two years ago I told the tale of Ron Finley, who took an urban gardening class and turned his South Los Angeles curb strip into a fabulously bountiful Eden that brought neighbors together and provided free, nutritious food to a neighborhood with too few healthy options.
This resulted, of course, in Finley being cited. The city owns those “parkway” strips between sidewalk and street, and growing vegetables is forbidden. Finley was told to uproot his little slice of Eden.
Finley decided to fight City Hall, and Councilman Herb Wesson vowed to take Finley’s side. He told me then that he’d be introducing a motion to allow parkway vegetable gardens, provided they met certain requirements regarding public safety, emergency vehicle access, clearance for car doors, etc.
“This is an area that is vegetable-poor, with the highest rates of obesity and diabetes,” Wesson said in 2011.
But two years later, Wesson’s “edible landscape” motion is still stuck in the City Hall sausage machine, with several city agencies quibbling over details.
And now the city’s garden cops are cracking down again. Zands got a notice in the mail last month from the Bureau of Street Services ordering him to remove three raised vegetable beds.
I went to see the boxes, thinking that perhaps they might be too close to the curb, making it hard to open car doors. But no. The stylish boxes, installed by Farmscape Gardens -- a local urban gardening specialist -- were about two feet from the curb, and only 18 inches high. Zands told me he’s teaching his kids how to grow food, sharing the harvest with neighbors and asking them to share recipes on his Parkway to Garden Facebook page.
“I’m not taking it down,” Zands said of his garden. He’s due in court next week and has also been ordered to trim a hedge that extends out over the sidewalk.
South L.A. resident Teger’s run-in with the bureaucracy began last week, with a visit from a tree surgeon with the Bureau of Street Services.
“I was ready to leave, and a city truck pulled up behind and was kind of aggressively honking. He said he’d been getting complaints from our neighbors,” said Teger. She found that hard to believe, considering all the support she’s gotten from neighbors. The garden has become a neighborhood magnet, she said, with kids and adults coming by to watch plants grow and share the harvest.
Teger said she was told to remove the parkway plants within 48 hours, and she was flabbergasted. She’d worked hard on that garden, building it with help from Finley and Florence Nishida, cofounders of L.A. Green Grounds, which has been helping homeowners build gardens in South L.A. and elsewhere.
The part of the garden that’s outside Teger’s front door is fine under city guidelines. But she was told that five fruit trees, several herbs and a couple of squash plants on the parkway violate city code and have to be removed immediately.
“This is ludicrous,” said Finley, who thinks the city could find better things to do, especially since negotiations are underway to relax parkway gardening restrictions. He’s now generating support for edible gardens in a Facebook campaign and told me he’s contacted City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, asking him to help move things along.
“If you go to Brentwood,” said Nishida, “do you think those people have permits” for their overgrown rosebushes, bougainvillea and other plants on parkway strips?
Even in Teger’s neighborhood, numerous violations of the parkway code, with nonedible plants and trees, could be seen on nearby properties.
“I feel singled out,” said Teger, who, like Zands, intends to fight the order to dig up perfectly good plants.
The city’s restrictions aren’t entirely without merit, said Clare Fox of the L.A. Food Policy Council. She can understand the need to restrict growth that hinders the view of drivers or blocks the light of street lamps. But she’s been trying to help city officials arrive at a compromise allowing for reasonable edible gardening without huge permit fees that currently begin at $400.
“The city has an amazing opportunity,” she said, given the thousands of miles of parkway strips that are wasted on grass, scrub, rocks or pavement, in a city with vast “food deserts.”
Ed Johnson, Wesson’s assistant chief deputy, told me “it’s going to take a while longer” to work out a deal on Wesson’s “edible landscape” motion, which then has to go to the Board of Public Works and the city attorney.
Johnson emphasized that Wesson still supports parkway vegetable gardening, with some restrictions, but also wants to explore the use of vacant city lots for community gardens.
That’s all lovely. But I can’t think of a single good reason the whole thing couldn’t have been done in two weeks rather than dragging on beyond two years.
As for parkway strips, Johnson said, one of the city’s concerns is liability.
“If you slip and trip on the eggplant,” he said, “you can sue the city.”
Last time I checked, Los Angeles had 5,000 miles of ruptured sidewalks -- some of which look like mountain ranges -- caused primarily by invasive roots on unmaintained parkway trees planted by the city.
Eggplant, it seems to me, is the least of our worries.