In a last coda to our Urban Commons issue, we look at the case of the South Central Urban Farm in Los Angeles, once the largest urban garden in the USA. Founded in 1994, it emerged from and served the local community successfully until 2006, when, despite protests, its site was bulldozed for development. uncube’s Susie Lee was involved in the protests, and here tells the rollercoaster story of the South Central farmers’ struggle to remain, their relocation, and the continued success of their initiative – highlighting the issues that urban farms face as a long-term sustainable model.
The South Central Farm was a 5.4-hectare community-built urban garden that thrived in one of Los Angeles’ roughest neighbourhoods, South Central, between 1994 and 2006. In an area scattered with liquor stores, but without supermarkets or even access to fresh produce, 350 low-income families denied government aid. Instead they received a plot of land from the city to grow food for their community. While the words “urban garden” have often become synonymous with the process of neighborhood gentrification, this was one community garden that truly served the community.
Without the farmers’ knowledge, in 2003 the city granted the real estate deeds to a property developer, Ralph Horowitz, who wanted to evict the farmers, bulldoze the garden, and sell the site – allegedly for use as a Walmart distribution centre. Thus the real community benefit of provision of green space, healthy food and a safe place for families – concomitantly helping to reduce greenhouse gases – came under threat. It would be lost to make way for another warehouse, in an area already full of vacant ones.
The developer’s asking price for the property in 2006 was $16.3 million, more than three times the amount he had acquired it for three years earlier. The South Central Farmers began a fundraising effort, and environmentalists, community activists, farmers from around the world, political and religious leaders, and celebrities showed up to voice their support. In June 2006, the South Central Farmers (with the help of the Annenberg Foundation) were able to raise enough money to meet the asking price, but the developer still refused the offer and ordered the farm to be bulldozed. Horowitz later told the Los Angeles Times that he would not have sold the property to the farmers even for $100 million, feeling that the media had dragged his name through the mud in the struggle for the farm to remain on the site.
After several failed attempts to regain the property or establish a new farm in the city centre, the farmers acquired a 34.4 hectare plot of land in Buttonwillow, California, 200 kilometres from the city. Here the remaining families established the South Central Farmers’ Health and Education Fund and its subset, the South Central Farmers Cooperative, a grassroots, non-profit organisation “dedicated to community self-reliance through urban and rural agriculture”.
Alberto Tlatoa, a longtime member of the organisation who has been farming with the urban garden since his childhood, says: “Through our efforts we seek to restore the traditional place of local, organically grown fruits and vegetables in the diets and lifestyle of displaced indigenous people and other low-income, ethnic minority populations. Our work emphasises cross-generational ties for the benefit of youth who face increasing childhood obesity and adults who face alarming rates of diabetes”.
The new organisation maintains its presence in the community by feeding an estimated 10,000 families each week in urban areas, with an added focus on producing ethnically diverse foods that can be difficult to find in organic markets. Another important part of their mission has been heirloom seed banking: after a good harvest, they allow their plants to bolt, preserving a variety of heirloom seeds to encourage ecological biodiversity, as an attempt to combat the increasing number of genetically engineered foods that threaten the survival of rare plant species.
The non-profit organisation focuses on nutritional education, targeting youth with campaigns like the “Farm to School” programme that encourages better food choices through school gardens, cooking lessons, and farm field trips. The group also provides youth-targeted urban gardening workshops, addressing the issue of snack culture by creating a line of healthy snacks – baked kale and beet chips – as an alternative to the deep-fried, genetically modified potato chips found at local liquor stores and supermarkets. Remembering past struggles, the SCFHEF continues to advocate for more green spaces in the community, a campaign that has helped to create a new city ordinance that allows Los Angeles residents to plant edible gardens on their sidewalks.
While the South Central Farmers have found an interim solution for now, in order to continue the tradition of organic farming and seed preservation the group’s ultimate goal is to regain an urban gardening space within Los Angeles city limits. However, given the need to navigate labyrinthine city politics, together with the minimal incentive offered to developers to release undeveloped land – even on a temporary basis – the plan to reestablish a large-scale, grassroots community garden in Los Angeles has so far proved elusive.
Even though the importance of green space and better nutrition would seem clear community benefits in deprived city neighbourhoods, where diet-based health problems continue to rise, city leaders have yet to acknowledge this through any affirmative legislative action that could help create a space of common ground, literally and figuratively, between these benefits and the exigencies of developers’ need to maximise profit. Until there is new thinking, wider political support, and a willingness to find creative compromises in cities such as Los Angeles, sustainable urban gardening will remain a struggle for many of the inner city communities most in need of its benefits.
– Susie S. Lee
For more information about the South Central Farmers and their organic produce distribution areas:
Trailer for “The Garden”, a 2008 documentary, directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, telling the story of the South Central Farm in Los Angeles. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009. (Video courtesy Oscilloscope Labs)