Organic Consumers Association

TEZOZOMOC

The organizer with South Central Farmers on surviving eviction, feeding the poor, and rethinking city parks

By DEAN KUIPERS

Los Angeles City Beat

Here’s a unique solution to poverty in South Los Angeles: Let people grow their own food. As unlikely as this sounds, about 350 farmers have been doing just that for over a decade, working a huge 14-acre plot at the corner of 41st and Alameda, growing everything from tomatoes to small papaya trees to indigenous Latin American produce like huanzontle, an edible green. Smack in the middle of a booming industrial zone, however, the plot has always been in legal limbo. Just over one year ago, the farmers were told they’d have to go, as L.A. developer Ralph Horowitz was set to put warehouses on the land.

That’s when community garden organizers like 39-year-old Tezozomoc dug in and formed South Central Farmers. They won an injunction, calling the land transfer illegal, and this last Sunday held a big public party at the gardens to celebrate having staved off eviction for one more year as their lawsuit progresses. Latin drum ’n’ bass crew Mezklah had even the abuelitas head-nodding as mayoral frontrunner Antonio Villaraigosa and state Senator Gil Cedillo made appearances, and hundreds packed the dirt walkways, wandering among plots already planted with an early summer crop.

CityBeat: What’s the history of these gardens?

Tezozomoc: The land was originally taken by eminent domain by the city of Los Angeles to put in an incinerator in South Central. That was during the ’80s. The plan was defeated, and then the land laid fallow. After the uprising in 1992, Mayor Tom Bradley [dedicated] the land for use as community gardens. The Los Angeles Food Bank started to use the land.

But now someone has a claim to this land?

The size of the garden is 14 acres. It’s in the industrial zone over there, so right now it’s easily worth about $15 million. Originally, Mr. Ralph Horowitz and his real estate development company was given $4.7 million for it. In 1994, the land was under the Department of Public Works and Riordan sold it to the Port Authority for $13.3 million. Around 2000 he was sued by the state of California; they basically challenged the Port – they couldn’t make that kind of a transaction. Horowitz claimed that he had a right of first refusal, so he sued the city of L.A. based on that, and then the courts basically said, well you really don’t have a case. Then all of a sudden around 2002 the city settled with Horowitz.

Was the community involved in any of these negotiations?

We were the constituency group that would be most affected by the decisions, yet we were never included in the lawsuit process. So in September of 2003 we were notified that we would basically be removed from the land. At that point, the South Central Farmers began organizing around the issue. We started to go to the committee hearings, but as we looked at the lawsuit, they had already cut a deal. Back in June of 2003, Jan Perry had agreed that she would basically allow Horowitz to have the land for – now this is the nice part – he only had to pay $5.1 million for it [laughs].

So a deal was on paper?

We went to the Environmental Waste Management Committee, which was Jan Perry’s committee, and she basically said she didn’t know anything about the deal even though there were legal papers that we showed her that say: Jan Perry has agreed to the settlement on June 3, 2003. They kept denying us inclusion. At a meeting December 17, 2003, we were basically taken off the agenda. Then on January 7, 2004, Jan Perry offered a 3/4-acre lot at 58th and Wall, to remove us to that location.

How could you squeeze into that space?

We were extremely insulted because she was not providing a solution even though she had known months ahead. We were going to be removed by February 24, 2004. The Los Angeles Food Bank and their agents began to tear down the lots and at that moment we did civil disobedience and we got a halt to it. We filed a temporary restraining order against the city, the Los Angeles Food Bank, and Ralph Horowitz.

The Los Angeles Food Bank is a nonprofit, so why were they tearing the gardens down?

They were in a terrible position where they had become the agents of the city. They never took a stand supporting the community garden. We had to sue them, too. On March 16, [L.A. Superior Court] Judge David Yaffe granted us a temporary injunction. Basically, we are suing under a law which allows us to enjoin the City Council if they are doing something illegally. In this case, the land is worth about $20-25 million and they are selling it for $5 million, so the difference constitutes a waste of public funds.

So where is the lawsuit now?

Right now we’re in the middle of the lawsuit. [L.A. Superior Court] Judge Helen Bendix prevented us from doing further discovery, so we appealed and we’re in the middle of that right now.

What was this event about last Sunday?

The title is “Survival and Self-Defense” – celebrating that we made it past the one-year mark. But even if we win this lawsuit, the land comes back to the city and it doesn’t change the current situation of the community gardens. We’ve been doing outreach to politicians, outreach to the Green community, outreach to civic organizations to build that broad-based support so that when we do come out of the legal case we’re able to take this land and put it in trust for public land so that we can basically have an open green space that fits the needs of the community, like a hybrid city park.

Do people just grow food for themselves?

We have about 350 families, and the way we pick people is we use the USDA guidelines for poverty, meaning the number of members per household and their income, and they use the parcels to supplement their food. But it also has become a kind of a community park, meaning that people come in, they walk around, they bring their kids because it’s a safe place, there’s no graffiti, no gangs.

And some of the people there grow for the Food Bank?

Right. Additionally, the place used to be a dump. People used to dump their stuff on that property and it was terribly kept. It was full of rats. We’ve been able to turn it around. We pay for our own water, we pay for our own toilets. It doesn’t cost the city or the taxpayers anything other than land use. We’ve been saying, “Hey, what if we shifted the policy about how we manage our parks, to start thinking about different ways of using these open green spaces.” That’s policy that I’m advocating at the state level and at the county level.

Have any local politicians come to your support?

State Senator Gil Cedillo’s very supportive. Antonio Villaraigosa’s very supportive. Eric Garcetti’s been very supportive. I extended an invitation to Hahn, but they turned me down. I figured I didn’t have enough pay-for-play [laughs]. That’s cold. The person who we’ve had the most opposition from, actually, is our own councilperson, Jan Perry. I’m sure, specifically, because we ruined some kind of backroom deal – $15 million is a lot of money [laughs].

How is this project changing parks policy?

There are things we should model across the city, because when people take even a transient sense of ownership they are going to make an investment. Those are the lessons that we learn from the ’65 riots. The people in East L.A. owned a lot more of their homes and they weren’t willing to burn them compared to the case in Watts, where we had a lot of absent landlords.

04-21-05