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Save the Farm. Deadline: Wednesday, July 23, 2008

by Leslie Radford Saturday, Jul. 19, 2008 at 8:39 PM

On July 2, Angelinos overcame the City-planned divides between rich and poor, cultural differences, and even broke through language barriers in the fight to restore the South Central Farm. When the developer proposed a diesel-spewing warehouse distribution center for the site, Farmers and Farm supporters threw a wrench in the cogs of City Hall and won a round in the fight to force Horowitz to do an Environmental Impact Report: they forced a twenty-one day delay for more public comments, and gained a glimmer of hope to restore the Farm. The fight between the people and developers' grip on City Hall could be decided by this Wednesday, July 23, 2008, the new deadline for public comments and the second hearing, a week or two later on the tenth floor of City Hall, in front of a small advisory board.

The extension opens the door to reclaim the Farm, but Jan Perry, infamous for running the homeless off her streets, for gentrifying the downtown section of her district while "developing" low-wage strip malls, warehouses, and dead-end jobs for her South Central constituents, is buttressing City Hall's resistance to change.  Meanwhile, Farm supporters are back on neighborhood streets.  They're making more phone calls.  They're carrying petitions to area gatherings and across the country.   They're asking Angelinos to send an online petition to the Planning Department, to demand the Recreation and Parks Commission weigh in and protect the adjacent proposed soccer field, to read the MND and the rest of the documents at the South Central Farm website, to offer to help.  They're asking the people of Los Angeles to unite once more, to reach out from our urban isolation in defiance of all that conspires to divide us, in order to restore the South Central Farm, the world's largest urban farm, an oasis in the middle of  Los Angeles's industrial wasteland.

This is now:  Taking on City Hall, 2008

Today the South Central Farm is a patch of fertile earth, the sprouts of corn and cactus regularly plowed back into the earth by Horowitz, while he leaves the litter and refuse to clutter the land.  But the Farm still lives in the hearts of Angelinos.  On July 2, 2008, Farmers, area residents, and their supporters returned to City Hall after a two year hiatus to protest Horowitz's construction of a distribution center on the Farm.

In mid-June, the City noticed the South Central Farm Cultural Center and residents within five hundred feet of the Farm that Horowitz had been issued a mitigated negative declaration, a "neg dec," permitting him to begin construction on a 643,000 square-foot distribution center for an unnamed tenant shaped like an "h," a grotesque monument to development.  A neg dec is a declaration by the City Planning Department's that the project would have no adverse environmental impact, that an Environmental Impact Report normally required by the California Environmental Quality Act is unnecessary.  From the security of the upper floors of City Hall, the City Planning Department's Deputy Advisory Board had obligingly taken the word of Horowitz's consultants, Terry A. Hayes and Environmental Planning Associates, that Horowitz's monstrous warehouse, capable of transferring cargo from up to 1200 tractor-trailer trucks daily, spewing diesel fumes and traffic into surrounding neighborhoods 24 hours a day, displacing 57,300 cubic yards of earth for a subterranean garage, would have no environmental impact.  No effect on human health and safety, no effect on neighborhood noise levels, no effect on possible archeological remains or on the wildlife that still occupies the land, or on the water table below it.  City Hall and Perry were at it again, subverting the California Environmental Quality Act, the meaning of Environmental Impact Reports, the point of the 1964 Civil Rights Act's ban on environmental discrimination, all to grease the wheels for developer Horowitz.

Tezozomoc, who, with Rufina Juarez, organized the Farmers to save the Farm in 2003, swore he would stand alone in front of the Deputy Advisory Board's hearing to protect the Farm if he had to.  But a week and a few phone calls later, and the South Central Farm Cultural Center was filled with people working out the details of rescuing the Farm, organizing work crews, painting signs and banners, making more phone calls.  Residents were canvassed, petitions went up online and out to area events, the media was notified.  The fight for the Farm was on, or, as the Farmers had chanted in vigils for two years since the eviction notice, "¡Aquí estamos, y no nos vamos!"  Their cry again echoed across the Los Angeles basin.

Two weeks later, on July 2, South Central Farm supporters staged a rally at City Hall and then piled into a hearing room deep in the labyrinth of the bastion of development.  There, they defended the Farm, the right to grow food, and the environmental rights of the largely neglected and working-class neighborhood alongside the Farm.  

The media flocked to the press conference on the City Hall east lawn.  Fifty supporters in SCF T-shirts, brushed off after two years, walked the sidewalk in front of City Hall with banners and signs.  A banner was draped over the nearby 110 freeway.  The demonstrators chanted, danzantes danced, musicians strummed vihuelas, and car horns gleefully pierced the din of downtown traffic in support.  Thirty neighborhood residents and Farmers waited in the tenth-floor hearing room.  At ten o'clock, the ralliers joined those upstairs.  The crowd mushroomed, spilling out of the 100-seat hearing room into the hallways and an overflow room.  City Hall security prowled the sidewalks and the corridors, prepared to keep City Hall secure from the people of Los Angeles.

The Deputy Advisory Board of L.A.'s Planning Department relented even before the first resident spoke.  Announcing that the Board would reconsider the MND, she cited the number of letters they had already received.  Then she extended the comment period.  At that, Rufina Juarez handed the Board new petitions with nearly eight hundred more signatures, and a hundred and forty hand-written letters from Farm neighbors.  City Hall shuddered.

The Board had in front of them a letter from the National Resources Defense Council, in which its 1.2 million members demanded a full Environmental Impact Report.   In a 21-page analysis, the Center for Biological Diversity noted "the failure [of the Mitigated Negative Declaration] to consider feasible mitigation measures and alternatives to reduce this cumulatively significant impact" and that "the MND cavalierly dismisses Project impacts on global warming."  Communities for a Better Environment drafted a report on environmental justice, and the Acequia Institute wrote:

The destruction by bulldozers of the world-acclaimed South Central Farm and eviction of the farmers in July of 2006 marks the most controversial episode in the entire history of urban planning and land use decision-making in the Los Angeles-area. The decision to proceed with the destruction of the farm met with widespread, indeed global, condemnation of an act that displaced a rare and precious cultural and agroecological site of singular importance to the non-governmental and governmental agencies concerned with the future of our local food systems and more sustainable forms of urban inhabitation and land use. . . .

[T]he MND does  not even identify environmental justice principles, issues, relevant regulations, and assessment methods. Failing to provide such an analysis means that the proposal, if approved as is, would constitute the most serious and egregious violation of environmental justice principles by LA City and County governments, the Port Authority, land use planning authorities, and other interested parties.

Two dozen speakers for an hour and a half gave life to the experts' testimony.  They spoke of noise and the dangers of children crossing traffic.  They confronted the Board with the known risks of diesel fumes, of asthma, cancer, emphysema, and underdeveloped lungs in children, that the Board had blithely ignored when they waived an Environmental Impact Report for Horowitz.  They testified about living in the backyard of industrialization and dared the Board to do the same.  "With this project, we wouldn't have any tranquility day or night," said the first resident to speak.  Horowitz's latest consultants, Rosenheim and Associates, a public policy consulting firm trying to establish the inherent industrial character of the neighborhood, had testified that forty-six freight trains and the Blue Line already roared through the neighborhood daily.

She left the table facing the Deputy Advisory Board and walked back to the visitors' seats.  Three speakers remained, a couple of them looking nervously at the microphones in front of them.  A fourth came up and sat at the vacant seat, waiting her turn.

The next speaker said quietly but firmly, "They should have called us before they did this project, because we have the right as residents to speak of this.  We have children, the fumes there are bad for them, people that are sick.  I don't think this should be built there."

Tezozomoc cited Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and listed the areas frequented by the young, the elderly, and the sick in proximity to the warehouse: Thomas Jefferson High School, Ross Snyder Recreational Center, Metro Vernon Station, the Alameda Swap Meet, Vernon Elementary School, and the City's proposed recreation center and soccer field adjacent to the truck depot.

Then a teacher from Vernon Elementary explained to the Board about learning in industrial desolation: "Some of the challenges faced by students are emissions and pollutants in the air that give off very awful smells and make concentrating on learning very difficult. . . . Every day they are breathing that unhealthy air, and that isn't acceptable. . . .This body should work with the community for what is in the community's best interest, not the developer's.  I urge you to deny, deny, deny the developer's plan.  No matter how you design it, it is still another polluting warehouse."

It fell to Communities for a Better Environment to drop the first hint of reclaiming the Farm: "The [Environmental Impact Report] needs to establish the baseline as when this land was home to the community garden, and compare it to the impact of the proposed project.  The EIR must take into account issues of air quality, noise, public health, storm water discharge, aesthetics, traffic, cumulative impacts, and environmental justice."

Brad Rosenheim and his associate had argued that the warehouse would create jobs, and now they sat on one side of the front row, leaning back with their legs splayed and arms crossed.  They sat, impassive and withdrawn, as a former warehouse worker told the Board and the residents about warehouse jobs.  

It's not a nice job, and I don't think any of these men would have their sons and their nephews working in these warehouses, much less if they didn't say it was going to be union jobs.  I'm sure it's going to be twelve hundred non-union jobs, low wage, long hours, and let me tell you what happens in those kind of warehouses.  If things are spilled, you sweep it out of the way.  And trucks have to wait, let the engine run, because they don't want to shut it off and have to start it back up and waste gas.  There's hazardous materials that are open and need to be taken care of immediately, that are left in the corner, put off to the side  because production has to keep moving and we can't slow down because profits have to be made. . . .  So I implore you, please, please, I implore you to deny this plan, and to take into consideration everything that the community has talked about here, including the things that these power brokers smirk at, like the kids and the hawks and the trees.  That's what's important to us.  That's what makes up our sacred church.  So please, I implore you, it's not as easy as they make it sound, there's a lot of complicated things involved here, including the health and the lives of our children.

Speaker after speaker rotated up to a place at the speakers' table, and each firmly, with clear conviction, confronted the Board across its buttress of desks.

"The idea of putting  a child's recreational center next to a distribution center packed with evil trucks, doesn't anybody feel compelled to care for or take some responsibility for the health and safety of the children of the Ninth District?"  At moments, Board members looked nonplussed at the heartfelt outpouring in front of them.

A teacher's assistant at Jefferson High School explained what the Farm meant to her students.  "They have to deal with a lot issues in their life, and the South Central Farm provided a place of refuge.  It was one of the few after school programs offered for our students. . . . I'm a bilingual T.A. with English learners, and the students I work with, they're extremely isolated and they're cut off from their homes, from their culture, and the Farm was really the only place where they were able to reconnect with that, to learn from the people that  were role models for them.  [The Farm] built up a sense of pride in their culture, in their history,  and in their people, and to take something away like that was really heartbreaking for them."

"Air pollution does not stay in one area.  It will affect children and the elderly the most, people who live and work and play around that vicinity.  We're using taxpayer dollars to clean up this pollution, to pay for the health care of these kids with asthma.  We're taxpayers as well."

A member of the Regional Comprehensive Planning Task Force for the California Association of Governments noted that the regional plan requires open spaces for Southeast and South Central Los Angeles, specifically community gardens and farmers' markets, and that community stability and economic self-reliance were values recognized in the regional plan.  He declared that the City had violated the plan when it facilitate the destruction of the Farm. 

And another: "There are students and workers behind me that have made sacrifices to be here today.  Our community in South L.A. is drowning in warehouses, and the few jobs that are projected to be provided by this warehouse are not guaranteed to go to the community."

Calls for an Environmental Impact Report and the reclamation of the Farm continued, with warnings about traffic and safety hazards, about the seventy-foot water table endangered by the proposed underground parking garage.  A truckers' organizer for the IWW testified that trucks would have nowhere to wait except to idle along the streets surrounding the warehouse, that the warehouse truck docks were too narrow to turn in.

A member of the Longest Walk, a cross-continental walk to protect Native American rights and the Native way of life, turned the morning's message back on the Deputy Advisory Board: "See that picture right there?  You can clearly see the sky above it, and all that brown stuff right there, you're breathing that too, no matter where you live, it's all southern California.  If you open up that window right there, you'll probably get a better look for yourself and see exactly how nasty it is . . . So you guys got to think about your own health and your own children's health and their children's health too, because this doesn't just affect us who live in poor communities."

Another speaker said much the same: "We don't want any more asthmas or respiratory or lung illnesses.  We want clean air.  We don't want any more invasion of poor communities.  Just like they share their project with us, we would love to share our illnesses with them.  I would love for them to live there, so they can understand what's going on." 

A woman challenged the Board: "Look what they have done to this area.  There's no trees, there's no parks: What are you trying to do to these people?  I wish you could have to go there, take your lunch on a few occasions,  and leave and see how these people are suffering."

When the neighbors, the supporters, and the Farmers had finished, a lone representative from Councilmember Perry's office sat at the table.  Perry chairs the City Council's Energy and Environment Committee and sits on board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which touts that "AQMD Board members have an understanding of the air pollution problems facing the general public."  But Perry had determined to oppose growing healthy food and protecting the air, the earth, the water, and the quality of life for this strip of her district.  Speaking for Perry, her aid warned the crowd and the Board: "Councilmember Perry recognizes a lot of the problems that were brought up.  I think that some of them have to do with the site, others of them are larger issues that face the community. . . . The warehouse being located here, we do feel it is an appropriate site for the warehouse and are supportive of that."

Perry must have been asleep at the switch.  The day of the hearing, the SCAQMD faxed a letter to the City Planning Division roundly denouncing the neg dec and recommending that the Planning Commission, "specifically prohibit land uses that would include sensitive receptors or industrial land uses that would further expose existing sensitive receptors nearby," apparently referring to the proposed recreation area next to the warehouse.  The SCAQMD went on to fault the findings for using incorrect references for soil handling, for referencing anti-pollution devices that may not exist, and for comparing the truck emissions of the proposed facility to a much smaller facility.  It recommended, among other adjustments, that the project include a 300 meter buffer zone between the distribution center and sensitive receptors, constructing freeway off-ramps to the facility, and reconfiguring the architectural plans to move the main entrance off Long Beach Avenue.  With the SCAQMD restrictions, industrial development on the land may be impossible.

In 2006, Perry had enough clout to force Mayer Villaraigosa and the rest of the City Council to defy their constituents and give in to the developer  Horowitz.  Today, rumors are that, after two years of waiting, Jan Perry counted the Farm Movement out.  And, reports continue, that since the people of the Ninth District condemned the project, Perry is on a rampage to salvage her job.  

And that was then . . .

Mostly, Los Angeles is an assortment of adjacent but isolated enclaves transversed by the freeways and major transportation arteries.  We locate ourselves in relation to them.  I live at the 405 and the 710, or just east of the 110 near the 5, or on the other side of the 101.  The freeways have been cultural and economic borders at least since the 1980's, when the Westside (west of La Brea, north of the 10) was closed off by expensive, single-family homes, gated communities, and not-in-my-back-yard lines in the asphalt.  Drive across L.A. on the 10, and your windshield becomes a movie screen of the income gap, and of ethnic and cultural collisions.  As Spanish-speakers came and stayed, East Los, unable to flow west, spilled into South Central and Inglewood, bastions of African-American tradition.  We in L.A. rarely leave the freeway any more.

Except if you happened down the Alameda Corridor a couple of years or more ago.  Through Los Angeles proper, the Alameda Corridor overlays Alameda Street.  It was designed to connect trucks and trains to the Port of Los Angeles.  Along its path have sprung up warehouses, manufacturing plants, shipping centers and the rest of the repugnance of industrialization that cities try to keep tucked out of sight.  In some places, industrial development overlays the homes and schools and playgrounds of people living in its shadow.  

In the middle of your drive down Alameda, between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 41st Street, a couple of years ago you would have seen the South Central Farm.  Back in 1986, the City had purchased the land from Ralph Horowitz and others as a site for a mammoth trash incinerator for .8M, but local residents rose up in one of first environmental justice movements in the country and defeated the notorious Lancer Project.  In tribute to the people, Mayor Bradley gifted the area to the residents after the Rodney King beating and the ensuing rebellion, in 1992.  Forced past in the flow of moving traffic, you might barely have had time to glimpse the 14-acre Farm, but, if your windows were open, the sudden jolt of oxygen-laden air was palpable.  

The City sold the land to the independent Port of Los Angeles in 1994 for M, and the Harbor let the food bank across the street use it for a community garden.  It blossomed into the largest urban farm in the world, feeding over 350 families and many in the neighborhood.   Then, eleven years after it was purchased, in backroom dealings that have yet to be explained, the City sold the land a second time, to Horowitz, the developer who owned it before 1992, for just 0,000 more than they price they paid him for it, a questionable gift of taxpayers' money to Horowitz.  For two years, the Farmers took time from their jobs and their farming to make twice-weekly trips to City Council meetings to implore the City to return the land to them, but by 2006 developer Ralph Horowitz had lined up the support of the Ninth District's councilmember, Jan Perry.  Early in the spring, the freeway boundaries that divided Angelinos crumbled--people from all walks of life contributed to saving the Farm when, at the behest of Horowitz and Perry, county sheriffs posted an eviction notice on the Farm fence.

Spanish-speaking Farmers and committed, mostly young, people from across the City occupied the Farm day and night.  Movie and music stars and famous activists dropped in for publicity photo ops, and some stayed to tree-sit.  Thousands of visitors from across southern California headed east or north or south or west to attend rock-star concerts and indigenous ceremonies to benefit the Farm.  People drove across the country to visit.  Prayers were offered in Africa and by Zapatista supporters in Atenco, Mexico.  Something essential, something like a connection to the land and these campesinos, had swept across Los Angeles.  City Hall was quaking.

But Horowitz, proclaiming "developers' rights" over the outrage of Angelinos, put the land on the market for .3M.  When the Annenberg Foundation and others came to the Farmers' rescue and offered Horowitz his asking price, he brusquely refused to sell it to the Farmers.  Three months later, on July 3, 2006, the media filled TV screens and radios with the sights and sounds of tree-sitters plucked off branches by hook-and-ladder trucks rolling across ripe food.   Supporters locked down in the fields, their arms chained in concrete-filled oil drums.  A cucumber in the tailpipe of a bulldozer shut it down for more than a day.  Forty-four people were arrested, as the bulldozers destroyed fourteen years of labor in an afternoon.  City Hall settled back on its foundation: development, industrialization, and exploiting Angelinos for the sake of globalization.

And for tomorrow: Reclaiming the South Central Farm

It's happened before, a groundswell of Angelinos uniting to keep patches of green safe from asphalt and concrete.  Back in 1999, the people organized and stopped the construction of downtown warehouses at the Cornfields, after the Cultural Affairs Department determined the site was not historically significant.  With dramatic justice, now the Cornfields houses the Los Angeles State Historical Park.  In that same year, nearly forty community organizations banded together to save Taylor Yard from warehouses.  Taylor Yard was purchased by the State of California and is now a state park.  

In 2006, Angelinos found one more treasure in their back yard, and they drove off the freeway grid, found each other, and fought City Hall for the South Central Farm and the Farmers who brought it to life.  Across the world, people held their breath in hope, but City Hall recovered its footing and industrial developers heaved a sigh of relief.  Now, the public comments will continue until July 23, from both the Farm supporters and, no doubt, from whomever Rosenheim and Associates can round up.  A week or two later, the Deputy Advisory Board will either stand by its Mitigated Negative Declaration or require an Environmental Impact Report.  In either case, an appeal to the full Planning Commission is likely.  The question is, can Angelinos muster their connection to the land and culture in time and with enough determination to pry City Hall from the grip of developers?  Can they recover their city government and the South Central Farm for the people?


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Re: Save the Farm. Deadline: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 Leslie Wednesday, Jul. 23, 2008 at 6:50 PM
McKim pete nice Sunday, Aug. 03, 2008 at 9:53 PM
McKim pete nice Sunday, Aug. 03, 2008 at 9:54 PM

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