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How the Weekly Brews a Tempest in a Teapot

by Leslie Radford Tuesday, Mar. 21, 2006 at 9:25 PM

Let me be clear that I know nothing more about the internal workings of the South Central Farm than the L.A. Weekly reported in its March 15 muckraking article, "Bushel of Complaints" by Daniel Hernandez. So I've borrowed those facts and added a somewhat different spin. Here's my version.

Tezozomoc and Rufina Juarez, an MTA transportation planner, are the elected leaders of the South Central Farm. Their fight with City Hall is, at this juncture, an act of love and determination. A win means the Farm will be turned over to the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, a non-profit assembled by the Mayor’s office and the City Council in 2002. LANLT is committed to addressing "the inequity of open spaces in Los Angles’ underserved neighborhoods, and to ensure community participation and collaboration." Juarez and Tezozomoc have no assurance that their services would still be needed, even if the Farm is turned over to LANLT, although Trust for Public Land area director Larry Kaplan left open the possibility that they might play a role in a nonprofit garden. "I would imagine they would have a role, because they’ve been so involved in it to date, but that’s not my decision," Kaplan said. The Trust is mediating negotiations between the Farmers and Horowitz.

The two have held together and educated the vast majority of the Farmers, who, on the whole, had little experience negotiating the corridors of City Hall prior to the City’s betrayal. Rising to the struggle, only twenty farmers of 350 Farm families have expressed discomfort in the fight to save the farm, and only a handful of those have been nervous enough to leave in the three-year struggle. One, "Don Eddie" Luviano, 82, explains he has opted for the tranquility, absence of discrimination, and low profile of another nearby garden, the Stanford Avalon Community Garden. Some of the South Central Farm lots remain barren, mostly the result of attrition and the uncertainty of the Farm’s future.

But the vast majority of the Farmers have opted to stay in the fight, rejecting a City-suggested move to a waiting list for Stanford Avalon, according to Tezozomoc.

The South Central Farm draws environmental-justice and Latino activists because it symbolizes the issues that define urban areas with large immigrant populations: the preservation of green space and the agricultural traditions brought to the U.S. by immigrants.

"People who come, whether [from] Laos or El Salvador or Mexico, bring with them farming skills and farming knowledge that has to a greater extent been lost in this country," said Robert Gottlieb, an Occidental College urban-environmental-studies professor. "There have been all kinds of fascinating stories of people who have taken median strips in major roadways, planted in alleyways. The farm at 41st Street is part of that broader phenomenon."

Founded in 1992 as a community garden under the management of the LA Regional Food Bank, area farmers, largely from Mexico and Central America, rescued the informal dump and drug site, and over years developed a natural farm growing native fruits and vegetables, sometimes from ancient seeds. When the City turned the land over to developer Horowitz in 2003, the farmers organized to save the farm in spite of warnings that there was little they could do to prevent the closure of the garden.

The food bank continues to collect per month from each Farmer, or 0 a month from a fully occupied Farm, for the Farm’s water and sanitation services. Other than that, the food bank handed over management to the farmers themselves. "They basically locked a lot of the gates that we used to have keys to," said food bank spokesman Darren Hoffman. He pointed to the success of current management: "We don’t go on the property much anymore."

The South Central Community Garden has drawn support and contributions from such disparate groups as Food Not Bombs, the Bus Riders Union, Common Vision, local high school MEChA chapters, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo, environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, and Zach de la Rocha, lead singer for Rage Against the Machine, who gave a free concert at the site in November that drew an estimated 3,000 people and on March 12 issued a statement in support at a Farmers' press conference.

Soccer Field in Limbo

Unresolved in current negotiations between the Farmers and developer Ralph Horowitz is the future of 2.6 acres of the 14-acre farm that Horowitz promised to return to the City for use as a soccer field. During the City’s sale of the Farm to developer Ralph Horowitz, Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, a neighborhood group, negotiated and gained 2.6 acres of the 14-acre farm for a community soccer field through Councilmember Jan Perry. Perry represents District 9, home for most of the farmers, and was a major beneficiary of Chamber of Commerce support for her election. Perry has yet to propose to the City any investigation or action on behalf of the Farm.

Perry was stirred to claim the soccer field by community activist Juanita Tate, according to Tate’s son and Concerned Citizens board member Mark Williams. Perry is intervening in the current negotiations for the Farm to preserve the field. Using a motion from the City Council asserting the City’s claim to the soccer field, Perry called on negotiators to report to City Council on March 17, although the item apparently was removed from the agenda shortly before the Council meeting.

Williams, seemingly unaware that the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust would take over the management of the Farm if the Farmers are successful, was worried about more than the soccer field. Without reference to the bizarre series of events that have led to the fight for the Farm, he was concerned that the process might be duplicated in the future: "If you sign an agreement saying you are going to have tenancy on a temporary basis, then when it comes time to go, you have to go," said Williams. "We thought it would be two to three years, and it turned into 10 to 12. But that doesn’t mean they should receive squatters’ rights. How will we ever get people to buy property here or do development here?" It was unclear what plans Concerned Citizens had for the Farmland a decade ago.

Dissent in Democracy

Al Renner, president of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council, after meeting with South Central Farmers recently, explained that farmers are not autonomous in the leadership styles they prefer: "There are several ways of running a garden. There are the standard democratic rules of organizing, then you have benevolent dictators, then you have non-benevolent dictators of gardens. I find that I would rather do what the will of the people want," Renner said.

As with all democratic organizations, there is dissent. In this case, some of it has been particularly ugly. Farm leaders have been charged with evicting farmers, requiring attendance at City Council meetings, intimidating farmers with restraining orders, allowing anonymous flyers attacking some of the Farmers, and collecting cash as a nonprofit 501(c)3.

The Farm is not a legal nonprofit, although it is filing for nonprofit status, but no donor has claimed that they were advised their contribution was tax deductible. As to the other charges, Tezozomoc, in an interview, clarified that he and Juarez are enacting and enforcing rules that the farm’s membership voted to approve. He and Juarez were elected in February 2004 to be the farm’s leaders and public representatives, and have been reaffirmed in two or three challenges to their office. Enforcing the rules is his job, Tezozomoc said, but added "It’s all volunteer. We’re not forcing anybody to be there. We’ve empowered people to struggle."

A few dissident farmers have complained about required participation in political actions, but the food bank, the Farm’s attorneys, and outside organizations have declined to intervene in democratically-determined farm policies. A USC graduate student claimed she and fellow social work students were asked to leave when they interfered in Farm policies. However USC graduate students in urban planning remain involved with the Farm.

Juan Gamboa remains on the Farm, despite being arrested and briefly hospitalized after a November 8 fight with Juarez and Tezozomoc. He accused Juarez of provoking the attack by saying, "I have more pants than all of you. Put on your skirts, bunch of ignorants."

And finally, there’s Margarito Salgado, who has left for the Stanford Avalon garden with Don Eddie: "We began to realize that they were not really concerned with the interests of the garden," said, 59, who, like many gardeners, left the South-Central farm earlier this year and now gardens at the new Stanford Avalon Community Garden near Watts. "We’re not opposed to the other farm. We don’t want it to close. But there needs to be another administration."

Apparently, democracy on the Farm is as difficult as anywhere else.

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the link to the Weekly article Leslie Tuesday, Mar. 21, 2006 at 11:13 PM
Your assumptions are FALSE!!! Proletariat Friday, Mar. 31, 2006 at 6:21 PM
Pure Deception Miguel Perez Sunday, Apr. 02, 2006 at 1:46 AM
Get the Facts Right! Lionel Monday, Apr. 10, 2006 at 10:15 PM

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