How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Tony Nigro

After the Los Angeles riots in 1992, community cleanup was all the rage.  One of the most unique projects was a fourteen-acre community garden in the heart of burned-out South Central on land purchased by the city via eminent domain.  By 2004, neighborhood residents were farming the land to an amazing degree, using it for food and as a point of community pride in an area that to this day is mostly associated with poverty and crime.  Wealthier urbanites were already “going green” and the Slow Food movement was gaining momentum, so a local farm seemed perfect.  But the Los Angeles real estate bubble was also at its peak, and Robert Horowitz, who originally owned the land, wanted it back ASAP.  What followed was a fight to the bitter, disappointing end, all detailed in the documentary The Garden.

Between the movie’s emotional portrayal of the farmers’ rise and fall and the backroom dealings of elites, The Garden is a quintessential Los Angeles story, a lost chapter in Mike Davis’s City of Quartz.  Watching it sums up my retired cop father’s thirty-plus years of complaints about Los Angeles politics.  It’s an angry, sad and solitary voice in a city of embittered people who shrug off the City Council’s antics as “corrupt” but rarely seem to vote them out of office.  In this respect, The Garden serves as an admirable document of the Council’s bullshit-as-usual legal wrangling, finger pointing, racism and various self-interests, all common practice in a city where the slogan “No Justice, No Peace” means someone might be pissed enough to throw a trash can through your storefront window.

How the tragedy went down is a convoluted story of legalese and posturing by community activists both honest and suspect.  Why not put a soccer field in place of the farm?  Why not let the original owner by the land back for the same price twelve years later?  Why should a then newly elected mayor care about the plight of an ethnic community he used as a stump in his campaign?  Like so much of Los Angeles, the issues are played as skin deep when the real story in fact happens behind shady, closed doors.  Regardless of any truth, what comes of The Garden and its sad ending is less fresh food, less local culture, and less public green space — all of which Los Angeles as a whole already lacks.

It’s hard to not get emotional or downright angry about the outcome of The Garden.  Like many post-Michael Moore message documentaries, it makes no bones where its sympathies rest, and that this is the farmers’ story.  Councilwoman Jan Perry, activist Juanita Tate and Horowitz are given voice but are also clearly painted as antagonists, distancing the film from any Walter Cronkite brand of objectivity.  And perhaps that is just as well.  This is not a five-minute current event piece to keep you informed.  It’s a researched historical document, years in the making, with a purpose to tell a story about people and about Los Angeles.  If you can take something home from that beyond mere information, the filmmakers have succeeded.

Amid rampant globalization, information data streams and opinionated, on-demand news, activity in local causes and politics seems waning.  I bet I have more neighbors and co-workers who could tell me how many pages are in the Senate’s health care reform bill than could name their City Council representative.  But ultimately one affects them no more or less than the other.  Public option or not, if your local elected official is going to bulldoze a garden or a park or a historically important hotel or anything else, you should not only know about it but have an opinion on it.  Citizens active on a local level nowadays seem either a dying breed or the egomaniacal boosters who make stories like The Garden possible.

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