Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Imaginary Solution for the South Central Farm Site

Former site of the South Central Farm as seen from the Blue Line (Google Maps)

I recently learned the story of the South Central Farm. This is it in a nutshell[1]:

In 1986 the City of Los Angeles used eminent domain to buy several parcels of land between Alameda St, Long Beach Avenue, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 41st Street in the City of Los Angeles. The purpose of acquiring the 14-acre site was to build a garbage incinerator. This did not sit will with the low-income community of color around the proposed incinerator, which waged a successful campaign to block the project. In 1994 the City gave an agriculture permit to the LA Regional Food Bank and the South Central Farm was established. People, many of whom were recent immigrants, raised organic crops for their own consumption or to sell. Being forced to sell the land didn't sit well with the original owner, Ralph Horowitz, who sued the City, and in 2003 got the City to sell the land back to him for the purpose of building a warehouse. The farmers blocked the warehouse project in court. However, their attempts to stay on the land finally failed in 2006, when the City evicted them and bulldozed the farm. Celebrities like Darryl Hanna, Danny Glover, Tom Morello, and Martin Sheen spoke out in favor of the farm. Several people were arrested in Occupy-esque acts of non-violent civil disobedience (e.g. refusing to leave, sitting in trees). The farmers are still fighting to re-establish the farm. They have a website, South Central Farmers, that is updated frequently. There is a free 30-minute film about the farm and its demise available online called Save the Farm. According to the film, Horowitz offered to sell the land to the farmers for $16.3 million but later refused to do so once they had raised the money (partially with the support of foundation grants). There is also a longer and Oscar-nominated 2008 film called The Garden on the same subject, which is excellent and gives a bit of Horowitz's and 9th District Councilwoman Jan Perry's perspectives on the controversy.

I had been passing this plot of land for years on the Blue Line (just east of the tracks between Vernon and Washington Stations) without realizing the history behind it. Currently, as you can see above, it is a desolate, fenced-in waste. It's really a shame. Warehouses don't create many jobs per acre, and the people of South LA need access to the low-cost, local and organic food that the Farm was able to provide, not to mention the rare connection to urban nature and community. On the other hand, the City's hand was forced, since the farmers didn't really have a legal right to the land after 2003 (unless you assume the City's sale was illegal, which some do).

So here's my bizarre idea to fix things. Instead of choosing between farmland and a warehouse, why not do both? You see, buildings have rooftops, and if those rooftops are properly designed, they can support agriculture. This way the landowner could get his project and the farmers could get their farm. The site could even be designed so that the warehouse includes space for a South Central Farmer's Market. That is, a grocery store that sells local, organic food directly to the people of South LA. Perhaps the developer could be persuaded to accept this arrangement (free rent and all) through a zoning concession. If not, there's always eminent domain right? ;)

It may not be the most desirable solution for the parties, since they would have to overcome their history of conflict and work together. But almost anything would beat that depressing empty lot.

[1] The factual details in this post are summarized from the account in Robert Gottlieb's book Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City, the film Save the Farm, the South Central Farm Wikipedia entry, and the film The Garden.

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