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Farmers, Developer Clash over a Patch of Green


Thirteen years ago, in the grittiest industrial area of Los Angeles, a group of immigrant families turned a 5.5 hectare piece of land into a thriving working farm. Today, that sunny patch of green -- what has become known as the South Central Community Garden -- stands in the shadow of a bulldozer. The farmers' supporters are planning another protest this week in their continuing effort to stop the development of what they call 'the largest urban farm in the United States.'

It's located just a few meters from the freight train that rolls through this industrial landscape of super-size warehouses and big trucks. As the blast of the train's whistle dies away, other sounds can be heard: shovels, hoes and quiet conversations in Spanish, as a scattering of men and women tend to crops of winter-squash, broccoli, and lettuce.

Tezomo, a sturdy man in jeans and a t-shirt, is the primary translator and spokesman for gardeners here. He is standing in Lucy Mandalato's garden, one of some 350 plots tended by mostly Mexican and Central American families. It's a place where avocado, guava and banana trees grow in the shadow of power-lines and skyscrapers. Mandalato presents a ripe avocado from her tree to a reporter, saying "I would like to preserve the garden always for the benefit of the children and for the public."

Tezomo points with pride to plants that are known to flourish more in Central America than in this area of Los Angeles known as South Central. He explains that the community farm provides for the farmers in many ways. "[These] people are low income, they don't have health care. So a lot of plants we grow here have a multiplicity of uses, which means that not only are they used for food but they're also used for medicine."

But the owner of the land where those plants grow has another use in mind --industrial development. It's a fate the farmers and their supporters want to prevent.

"It is a tragedy that this land will be lost," says Dan Stormer, a civil rights attorney representing the farmers. He calls it the pre-eminent garden of its kind in the country. "These are people who have taken a blighted area and have turned it into something to be proud of," he says. "The city should be proud of this instead of participating in its destruction."

The city of Los Angeles had planned to build a trash incinerator on this property in the 1980s, and forced developer Ralph Horowitz - who owned the land - to sell it. When those plans were scrapped the city turned the site over to the Los Angeles Food Bank, which in 1992, allowed the neighborhood families to transform the cement and asphalt into the mosaic of green that is there today.

While the garden grew, so did Ralph Horowitz's resolve to get it back. "I think they should have gotten off, they've had their run," he says today. He sued the city claiming he had not been given the opportunity to do that after plans for the incinerator were dropped. Finally, two years ago, the city sold the property back to him. The farmers in turn began their legal challenges to the sale, but so far, all the decisions have been in the developer's favor.

Horowitz isn't surprised. "Why should they have the use of the land indefinitely, personally?" he asks. "I don't fathom that very well, I don't see that argument."

The developer says while the farmers are on the land, he's losing close to $30,000 a month in revenue. He's offered to set aside more than a hectare for a soccer field, and in the meantime, he's going forward with development and eviction plans.

So, at the garden, makeshift scarecrows stand guard over the crops by day, and by night, families fearing their crops will be destroyed take turns sleeping in tents. Some here believe they are on borrowed time, others place their hope in the belief that the city will buy back the land from Horowitz and create a multi-use park and urban garden. In the meantime, the landowner waits for his final day in court, while the family farmers prepare the soil for spring planting.