Shady Dealings Destroy the Shade
When the film shows people planting and weeding and watering, a sense memory so strong it overwhelmed me was raised. My mother's house sits on three quarters of an acre, not far from where the garden under discussion here was. Every summer, we'd go to a nursery and pick out plants and seeds; that smell is strong in my nostrils as I write this. We'd take them home and plant some patch or another of the backyard, growing corn and eggplant and zucchini. One year, we only planted four, maybe six, tomato plants, and they overran their wire cages and spread until there was a sea of tomatoes between the garage and the fence. Mom watered early in the morning or late in the evening, as you should, and the water glittered in the light, that light which is somehow different from light at any other time. I'm not much in the way of a gardener, myself, but I remember the feel of the damp earth, the squeak of corn leaves, the weight of the vegetables which had grown slowly over the summer. We had fruit trees, too, many of which came with the house and some of which Mom planted over the years. Gardening stays in your brain.
The land, fourteen acres in South Central Los Angeles, was at the time the garden was first planted property of the city. After the riots, it became a public garden, with nearly four hundred families growing fruit and vegetables, mostly for personal use--growing for profit was against the garden rules. It's clear that none of the families are rich, and even if they are, there's something to fresh vegetables. The land had, in 1986, been seized under eminent domain to build a trash incinerator. A local group, Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles, prevented construction of the incinerator, and the land stood vacant until the planting of the garden. In 2003, former owner Ralph Horowitz sued the city to get his land back. His suit was rejected by the courts, but a back room, probably illegal, deal went through to sell him his land for barely more than he paid for it, along with the proviso that he use some of his land to build a soccer field.
The issue, really, is more about the shadiness of that deal than any rights the farmers have. Juanita Tate, founder of Concerned Citizens, had no qualms about fighting the incinerator on the grounds that it was bad for the community, and she had no qualms about raising money for that soccer field--but the field is basically just dirt with a couple of goals up. It's implied that at least some of the problem is racism, but it also seems clear that some of the problem is personal power for both Juanita Tate and City Council member Jan Perry. After all, the courts had determined that Horowitz had no claim on the land, but the deal went through anyway. It's also a pretty unbelievable deal, all things considered, and Horowitz went on record as saying that it was at least in part because of Juanita Tate. He also said that, even though the deal was through a public entity, he did not feel that the terms of the deal should be made public. It seems that the laws of Los Angeles disagree, and that's where it gets even more complicated. This turns out to be, at least in part, because Horowitz listed a price three times what he paid for the land in order to see it to the community. And then, of course, they raise it--and he still won't sell. He says now that he wouldn't sell for twenty times what he paid for it.
Honestly, the footage of the supporters coming to the garden is more than a little frustrating. When the "Presidential candidate" who's going to solve all their problems--who will go against them now?--shows up, it's not really surprising to see that it's Dennis Kucinich. However, when people such as Danny Glover, Martin Sheen, and Joan Baez show up, and it's said that, after weeks, they've raised fewer than five hundred thousand dollars, it makes you wonder how much these people actually support the thing. No, I don't expect Leonardo DiCaprio to be able to whip out the sixteen million just from his pocket, but you know, it would be pretty easy for their celebrity supporters to raise at least a couple million from the Hollywood Media Elite--this is a cause people understand, after all, and it's right here in the US. How else to show that they're part of Real America?
I'm not trying to be an apologist for the community. It's pretty clear that there are some problems within the organization. Some people seem to have a lot more power than the others, though I suspect that Rufina Juarez and Tezozomoc get the attention because they're impassioned, unafraid, and bilingual. However, while it's easy to argue for Horowitz as the legal owner of the land, given the uncertain nature of his purchase, he doesn't really seem to have much more right to the property than they. Juanita Tate is dead, but her son is facing corruption charges from the handling of the soccer field funds. The biggest issue, and this may well be true on both sides, is a lack of transparency. The film is looking at things more from the farmers' side, but that's at least in part because Horowitz and the city aren't much talking.