For more than a decade following the Rodney King riots, a 14-acre swath in south central Los Angeles served as the largest community garden and urban farm in the United States. More than 350 families, most of them working-class Latinos, labored over the land, producing a verdant cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, and herbs – apples, corn, bananas, papayas, cilantro, radishes, zucchini, and much else. It seemed an American Eden, but its serpent was the human urge to claim possession. On January 13, 2006, a developer, asserting his property rights, bulldozed the entire South Central Farm.
In The Garden, Scott Hamilton Kennedy reviews the unhappy history of this experiment in collective urban agriculture whose legal status was as tangled as any of the vines it grew. In 1986, the city of Los Angeles, using its powers of eminent domain, acquired the land from Ralph Horowitz for the purpose of constructing a waste incinerator. Community opposition, led by activist Juanita Tate, forced the city to abandon the incinerator project and sell the land back to Horowitz for the same $5 million it had paid him as compensation for appropriating his property. Resourceful residents of the neighborhood used the acreage for subsistence farming, until Tate and Jan Perry, City Councilwoman for the district, worked out a secret deal with Horowitz to set aside part of the property for a soccer field while using the rest for warehouses. The farming plots would have to go.
The plot of The Garden is a suspenseful countdown to eviction. While the case makes its way through the courts, the passionate planters gather support from celebrities including Daryl Hannah, Martin Sheen, Danny Glover, and Willie Nelson. Congressional representatives Dennis Kucinich and Maxine Waters defend the farm, while Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa equivocates. Tate and Perry, both black, come across as schemers whose machinations exacerbate tensions between Latinos and African-Americans. But Horowitz, who does not appear except in footage of a deposition, is the villain of the piece, a mogul motivated by greed and spite. It was much more complicated than that, but against the image of a ripe avocado a corporate lawyer does not stand a chance, except in court.