Owner Threatens to Raze Garden in Industrial L.A.

In one of the most industrial areas of Los Angeles stands a 14-acre garden with banana trees, sugar cane and every vegetable you can imagine... For more than a decade, hundreds of mostly immigrant families have farmed the plot of land. Gloria Hillard reports that the property owner's plan to raze the garden has sparked community protest.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Thirteen years ago, in one of the most industrial areas of Los Angeles, a group of immigrant families turned a vacant piece of land into a thriving, working farm. Today, that patch of greenwood that has become known as the South Central Community Garden may be paved over. Reporter Gloria Hillard has more.

GLORIA HILLARD, Reporting:

Just a few feet from the freight train that rolls through this industrial landscape of super sized warehouses and big rigs is another sound. Hunched over shovels and hoes, a scattering of men and women are tending to crops of winter squash, broccoli, and lettuce.

GIRL: (Spanish Spoken)

Mr. TEZEMO (Spokesman for Gardeners): She collected some avocados from her tree, so you can see.

HILLARD: Tezemo, a sturdy man in jeans and a t-shirt, is the primary translator and spokesman for the gardeners, here. He is standing in Lucy Mondalado's garden, one of some 350 plots tended by mostly Mexican and Central American families. A place where avocado, guava and banana trees grow in the shadow of power lines and skyscrapers.

FEMALE (Through Translator): I would like to preserve the garden, as always, for the benefit of the children and for the public.

HILLARD: Tezemo points with pride to plants that are known to flourish more in Central America than this area of South Central.

Mr. TEZEMO: Because people are low income, they don't have health care. A lot of the plants that we grow here, not only are they used for food, but they're also used for medicine.

HILLARD: But, the fate of the South Central Community Garden may be destined for what encircles it, industrial development.

Mr. DAN STORMER (civil rights attorney): It is a tragedy that this land will be lost. It is the preeminent garden of its kind in the country.

HILLARD: Dan Stormer is a civil rights attorney. He represented the farmers in what has been up to now, a string of unsuccessful challenges over the sale of the property to a developer.

Mr. STORMER: It is wonderful people who have taken a blighted area, and turned it into something which the community should be proud of, rather than participating in its destruction.

HILLARD: Developer Ralph Horowitz originally owned the land in the mid 1980's, but was forced to sell it to the city as a site for a trash incinerator. When those plans were scrapped, the city turned the land over to the Los Angeles Food Bank, which allowed the neighborhood families to transform cement and asphalt into the mosaic of green that is here today. Ralph Horowitz.

Mr. RALPH HOROWITZ (Developer): I think they should have gotten off. They had their run.

HILLARD: He sued the city, and bought back the 14 acres for a reported $5 million in 2003. He says the land costs him close to $30,000.00 a month, and that he's offered to donate three acres for a soccer field. In the meantime, he's going forward with development and eviction plans.

Mr. HOROWITZ: Why should they have the use of the land indefinitely, personally? That's really, I don't fathom that very well. I, I don't see that argument.

HILLARD: Makeshift scarecrows stand guard over the crops by day and by night, families fearing eviction and the razing of their crops, take turns sleeping in tents. Some here believe that 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 family farmers continue to harvest their crops.

(Soundbite of a person singing in Spanish)

Ms. HILLARD: The song, they say, is about a tree that blossoms only in May, and the sadness that accompanies such beauty. A song that takes on a special poignancy, now. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

(Soundbite of music)

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