“They wanted to throw us out, like if we were animals,” says an aging farmer, his skin weathered and his hair white. A younger man stands near him, and adds, “It’s because we’re Latinos, they don’t want us.” The first man shrugs. “Exactly,” he nods.
It’s January 2004, and the South Central farmers have just been informed they are to be evicted from the 14-acre community garden they have been working since 1992. Standing before a “Notice to Vacate,” a group of men and women are still, as if uncertain how to respond. Some are tearful, others frustrated and others make no bones about their anger. The farmers form the collective subject of Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s The Garden, winner of the Sterling U.S. Feature Award at this year’s Silverdocs Festival and shortlisted for Academy Awards consideration in 2009. Only a few of the farmers are named in the film, underlining their collective identity and sense of dedication to the garden at 41st and Alameda, at least in part engendered by the garden has been disrupted by individual efforts to profit from the land and still more broken promises from state and local governments.
It’s hardly unprecedented for the City of Los Angeles to renege on an agreement. Indeed, the garden was born of a crisis of faith in authority. As The Garden recounts in a brief context-setting sequence, the rebellion following the Rodney King verdict resulted in thousands of injuries, 53 deaths, and $1 billion in damage. “To pacify the community,” says farm leader Rufina Juárez, the city designated the area for planting. The farmers — most of them immigrants from Latin America, without legal resources and with fear of legal ramifications — didn’t see the right to work the land as a gift, but rather, as part of a contract. “The government is made by us,” one observes. “We pay taxes, we pay their salaries.”
Garden founder Doris Bloch sits poolside as she remembers how it started: “The neighborhood was quite blighted,” she says, and so she proposed “to make an urban garden out of it, because the people here are poor and they deserve to grow their own food: land, people, food — it’s a pretty simple idea. Happy days.” In fact, as farm leader Tezozomoc recalls, “We had to by dirt.” But still, they were able to sow and harvest a variety of crops — corn, papayas, eggplants, bananas, radishes, organic plants without chemicals — and moreover, to forge an identity and sense of purpose. Eventually, they were calling themselves the “South Central Farmers Feeding Families.”
This origin story isn’t the only one in circulation (Leslie Radford and Juan Santos write, “The rebellion meant the loss of huge investment opportunities in the area for the rich, and the city set out to fix that problem for them. The plan aimed to make high risk investments profitable for the investor by sinking government money into their development schemes”), but it suffices to set up the conflict that arose in 2004, when it emerged that the city had taken the property, under the auspices of eminent domain, from developer Ralph Horowitz. In 2001, he sued L.A. for failure to honor the original right of repurchase; though the city rejected his claim, in 2003, it cut a behind-closed-doors- deal, selling the property back to him for $5,050,000. He offered to sell it again — for $16 million, far beyond the farmers’ reach.
The Garden tracks the legal maneuvering, social organizing, and political activating on all sides. As the farmers lacked cash and clout, they turned to the media, taking their case to television and the newspapers. They got the attention of celebrities, including Martin Sheen, Danny Glover, Joan Baez, and Daryl Hannah, as well as Rage Against the Machine, who performed at fund-raising events, where speakers called for Horowitz “to do the moral thing.” And they had the support of tree sitter John Quigley (who stages a demonstration with Hannah and others), attorney Dan Stormer, ex-Black Panther Deacon Alexander, and Maxine Waters. When the Annenberg Foundation offered to come up with the money, Horowitz backed out of talks, claiming he had “been made a villain” and complaining he had been the object of anti-Semitic remarks. He also suggested that he didn’t want to sell to “squatters.”
The film doesn’t sort out or directly document all the details of these multiple stories, but its sympathy for the farmers is clear, its handheld camerawork suggesting a nearly organic structure and growth. Their organizing work is persistent and grass-roots in the most vivid sense, as they gather together the surrounding communities through candlelight vigils and marches big enough to make the evening news. When the bulldozers arrive at last, along with policemen with batons, the scene is heartbreaking — as well as frustrating and infuriating. Even in the face of implacable bureaucracy and individual greed, however, The Garden conjures a portrait of an increasingly self-confident and self-conscious community.