(2008) Documentary (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Rufina Juarez, Tezozomoc, Josefina Medina, Eddie Luvianos Rumbos, Deacon Alexander, Miguel Perez, Jan Perry, Juanita Tate, Doris Bloch, Dan Stormer, Ralph Horowitz, Danny Glover, Darryl Hannah, Antonio Villaraigosa, Joan Baez, Dennis Kucinich. Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy
The land is the important thing. It is what nurtures us, gives us sustenance. There are those who identify with the land as surely as they identify with their selves. It is more to them than a plot of dirt, or a bit of grass. It is everything.
After the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, a 14 acre plot of land in South Central Los Angeles that was intended for use as a trash incinerator until neighborhood activists put a stop to it was given by the city for use as an urban garden. It would be the largest of its kind in the United States.
The garden at East 41st and South Alameda was primarily tended to by primarily Hispanic farmers, many of whom had been farmers or were descended from farmers in Mexico. They grew vegetables and fruits almost all native to the region that encompasses Mexico and the Southwestern United States known as the Mega-Mexico Vavilov Center (sounds like a discount store doesn’t it) some of which are considered weeds (like dwarf nettle and seepweed) but were used for herbal and medicinal uses by the farmers, while others were vegetables and fruits not commonly available at supermarkets.
The farmers used these vegetables and fruits to supplement the diet of their families; the excess they would sell to other families in order to buy new seeds and whatever else they needed to tend their garden.
Of course prime real estate in Los Angeles has a habit of finding different uses. While the city owned the land, they had acquired it through eminent domain, paying what was considered a fair market value for the property. Part of the agreement for that eminent domain was that if the land was sold for non-public or non-housing purposes, the original owners had a right to repurchase ten years after the property had originally been condemned.
Ralph Horowitz, one of the partners in the investment firm that was the largest of the nine owners of the property, sued the city for breach of contract. While the city denied his claim, eventually in a closed door negotiation the suit was settled and Horowitz was allowed to repurchase the land for slightly more than the city had paid for it, which was substantially under the market value at the time.
A few months later Horowitz notified the farmers that he was terminating the use of the property as an urban garden and that all the farmers would be evicted as of February 29, 2004. The farmers, who formed a collective known as South Central Farmers Feeding Families, immediately obtained legal counsel from Hadsell and Stormer Inc as well as Kaye, McIane and Bednarski LLP and a lawsuit was filed seeking to invalidate the sale. The litigants were able to obtain an injunction staying the termination date while the legal matter was settled.
The farmers lost the lawsuit and attempted to negotiate with Horowitz to buy the land themselves. Horowitz demanded $16.3M for the property, more than three times what he’d paid for it less than two years earlier. The farmers eventually raised the funds with the help of the Annenberg Foundation, but Horowitz didn’t respond to the offer because it came after his eviction deadline.
The case had become a cause célèbre in Los Angeles, with celebrity activists such as Baez and Hannah actively protesting the eviction (Hannah would be arrested for tree-sitting in a walnut tree on the property and refusing to leave when the police ordered her out) and on June 13, 2006 at 3am in the morning, the police surrounded the property, evicted the protesting farmers and allowed Horowitz’ contractors to bulldoze the Garden.
This is what most of us saw. What we didn’t see was the political chicanery going on behind the scenes. Of promises made and broken. Of politicians showing support for the Garden but doing nothing to save it, and of community activists whose agenda was less for the community and more for their own profit.
The sympathies of the film lie clearly with the farmers. The main spokespeople, Juarez and Tezozomoc come off very well, speaking passionately and in Tezozomoc’s case quite eruditely on the controversy. Coming off less well are Horowitz, community activist Juanita Tate and U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, both of whom are portrayed as corrupt and politically savvy.
This was an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary feature and with good reason. The strength of the farmers, nearly all of whom were from the poorest segment of society, is inspiring as they took on the political powers-that-be in the City of Angels as well as the wealthy segments of society. While it is certainly one-sided, it did capture the facts nicely as well as some of the background as well.
While the story doesn’t end happily for the farmers, it does at least bring to light some of the injustice that took place and made accountable those who gave lip service to serving the people but were in reality serving themselves. That is, unfortunately, all too common a situation today.
WHY RENT THIS: A moving account of underdogs standing up to City Hall and developers.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Little of the criticism leveled against the activists is explored or even mentioned..
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words used here and there but not so many as to be distressing to parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of June 2011, the site remains a vacant lot with the proposed warehouse and distribution center still unbuilt.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the history of the Garden, as well as a look at celebrities who visited it during the protest. There is also a film festival Q&A with director Kennedy and film critic David Poland.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,931 on an unreported production budget; I’m pretty sure the movie was unprofitable from a box office standpoint.
FINAL RATING: 9/10
TOMORROW: Fair Game