The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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A ‘Garden of Eden’ in the City of Angels

Surrounded by warehouses, Metro rail tracks and the traffic of South Central Los Angeles, 14 acres of land remain fenced off from the sprawling urban chaos. Here, Remedios Zapata and Alfredo Vaquero work together to harvest broccoli, squash, onions, potatoes, cabbage and more in their plots at the South Central farm.

Alfredo, a farmer from Puebla Mexico, recalled how almost 12 years ago he stumbled upon the South Central farm. He came to the warehouse district in search of a job. Not meeting much success, he felt a surge of happiness when he saw in the farm a place where he could cultivate the land and produce food. Since that day Alfredo and Zapata have worked together on the land.

Zapata said that the farm remained undeveloped through the 1980s. It was used for dumping garbage until it began to be divided and distributed among community members.

In the1980s the city of Los Angeles gained possession of the 14-acre land plot by eminent domain from nine private landowners. Alameda-Barbara Investment Company owned approximately 80 percent of the land.

Los Angeles planned to turn the land between 41 and Alameda streets into a trash incinerator, but abandoned those plans after public protest by the Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. After the protest, the city set aside use of the land as a community garden and moved the title to its harbor department.

Allocating contractual permission with the Los Angeles Regional Food bank, the land was divided into 360 separate plots and given to the community.

Negotiations for purchasing the land by the previous owner, Ralph Horowitz, started in 1995 and continued until October 1996. Despite the talks, the city council never approved the agreement and the land was not sold.

In 2002 Horowitz filed suit against the city for not executing the purchase agreement. On Aug. 13, 2003 the city approved the sale of the land in a closed session for just over $5 million and notified the food bank of the sale by letter.

On Sept. 23, 2003 the food bank then notified the more than 350 families using the land with letters detailing the need to exit the land within 30 days.

“The order was posted in English,” said Rufina Juarez , an organizer with the South Central Farmers.

“That was very disrespectful? It was an insult to the community and to the dignity of the families. More than 90 percent of the families only speak Spanish,” she said.

At this point the families working the land began to unite in an effort to keep the land. Alfredo Vaquero and Zapata are among the more than 350 families that oppose the evacuation from the South Central Farm. Together they struggled to keep their “Garden of Eden” alive.

Despite efforts by the families, the city of Los Angeles transferred the title to the property on Dec. 11, 2003.

In January 2004, Horowitz gave a second notification of his purchase of the land to the South Central Farm, requiring termination of the community garden for Feb. 29, 2004.

“The land belongs to me?I bought the land back in 2003,” Horowitz said. “I owned the land in the 1980s. The city took it from me.”

A new agreement of outlines that “2.6 acres (of land) would be used by Department of Parks of City of Los Angeles,” Juarez said.

Trust for Public Land (TPL) has the option to buy the land if the organization has the funds to, Horowitz said.

TPL is a national non-profit land conservation organization that works to preserve land for parks, communities and gardens accordingly.

“They are paying to hold the land until they decide if they want or not to buy the land,” Horowitz said.

Juarez said TPL signed a new agreement with Horowitz and set a goal to fundraise and buy the land.

Since that interview, Horowitz applied a May 22 deadline for TPL to raise an additional $1 million; on top of the more than $10 million in fundraising the farmers have already done, according to a Pacifica Radio report. The final negotiated price is unknown, but the last price tag placed on the property by Horowitz was $16 million, which he said was below market value. TPL has promised to raise any remaining funds necessary after the end of public fundraising.

Pacifica Radio quoted organizers for the South Central Farm as saying, “Our voices have been heard, the vibrations from our marching feet have been felt, and the power of the community has been acknowledged.”

Gerardo Vaquero, Alfredo’s older brother, also works a plot of land in the garden. For the last nine years he has harvested different plants and vegetables. Most of his crops grow from seeds brought from Puebla, Mexico. Gerardo Vaquero said there was a lack of these plant seeds in Los Angeles.

“When (the garden) was a dumping site nobody claimed anything, since it was contaminated, but now that is not contaminated everybody claims the land as theirs,” Gerardo Vaquero said.

According to Juarez, the garden has received a lot of support from numerous environmentalists and activists.

“Many international and national organizations and an innumerable amount of people have helped us,” Juarez said.

“We always try to support the South Central Farmers,” said Carlos Moran, chair of CSUN Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan (MEChA).

“We have gone to the city meeting asking for their support to the South Central Farmers,” Moran said. He added that some MEChA members have been involved in different concert performances in the garden.

Liberio Tlatoa said the South Central farming community members volunteer their time to provide 24-hour security for the garden. Tlatoa is scheduled to provide security on Monday nights.

Tlatoa has been planting and harvesting on his plot for eight years. He said the crops he harvests in the garden are fresher than the ones he buys at the grocery store, and taste better.

The farm is about more than crops, it is also about family, according to Alfredo Vaquero.

“The garden is very important to us, because we have raised our kids here. I have two children, my daughter is 14 and my son is 16,” Alfredo Vaquero said. His family has become part of the community that surrounds the farm.

Many of the people working plots of land on the farm are older retired people, said Tlatoa.

“Many are not able to find jobs,” Tlatoa said. “Here they have their piece of land and they come to work on it.”

“We don’t want them to destroy the garden for economic interest but we are from the land and in the land we are going to stay,” Alfredo Vaquero said.

Gabriela Gonzalez can be reached at city@sundial.csun.edu.

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