THE FUTURE AT WAR WITH THE PAST
While South Central’s Urban Farmers Face Eviction,
Peak Oil Threatens Global Food Supply
Senior Staff Writer
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March 22, 2006 1200 PST (FTW) - LOS ANGELES - A few short weeks ago Jan Lundberg, the founder of www.culturechange.org, gave FTW a rich and colorful account of L.A.’s South Central Farm, a 13-acre oasis of traditional agriculture in the middle of a bleak warehouse district. But in the brief interval since that piece appeared, the South Central Farmers Feeding Families have endured a rollercoaster of anxiety, relief, and new anxiety as their pending eviction was postponed at the last possible moment. They live in suspense between one such episode and the next, but somehow the serial reprieves keep coming and the 150 species of edible and medicinal plants from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala keep growing.
In a complex case like this one, it’s often best to begin with a timeline:1
May 1, 1986
Seeking a site for a proposed power-generating waste incinerator, the City uses eminent domain to force the purchase of a 14 acre lot from Alameda-Barbara Investment Company, whose major investor is real estate lawyer Ralph Horowitz. ABIC receives $4,786,372 for the lot. This is, apparently, far below market value and may help to explain Mr. Horowitz’ subsequent zeal.
Public protest forces the abandonment of the incinerator project.
November 5, 1991
A judgment is handed down which provides that if, within 10 years of the date of the judgment, the City determines that the property is “surplus” (no longer needed for public use) and that it should be sold, the City will enter into negotiations (not to exceed one year) with ABIC to sell the property back to ABIC.
In the wake of the Rodney King uprising, Doris Bloch of the L.A. Regional Food Bank and others move to create a community garden of over 360 individual plots on the otherwise idle site. The following year, as Bloch retires, the gardeners themselves begin to organize their own farming in the absence of further Food Bank initiative. As UCLA medical students later observed in the solidarity message to Mayor Villarraigosa, “When Mayor Bradley granted this land to the community after the 1992 uprisings, it was to address… economic inequities.”2
The City sells the property to its own L. A. Harbor Department. More precisely, the Richard Riordan administration transfers the property from the Department of Public Works to the Harbor Department, moving $13.3 million from Harbor to Public Works as the price.3 That figure is closer to the market value of the property.
The Food Bank and the Harbor create a mutually revocable permit allowing the former to continue running the site as a community garden. Arrangements are made between the Food Bank and the individual farmers, who eventually form South Central Farmers Feeding Families.
By this time, Horowitz’ interest in the property is rekindled, and negotiations begin for ABIC – now the Libaw-Horowitz Investment Company, or LHIC – to buy the property back from the City.
The City and LHIC make a purchase agreement, fixing the sale amount at $5,227,200.4 Execution of the agreement requires City Council approval, but such approval is not obtained and the sale falls through.
April 24, 2002
After a lapse of six years, LHIC files suit (Libaw-Horowitz Investment Company v. City of Los Angeles et al. (Super. Ct. Los Angeles County, No. BC272571) against the City and the Harbor Department for breach of the agreement to sell the property, seeking enforcement of the agreement and monetary damages. At the direction of the Harbor Department Board of Commissioners, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo enters into settlement negotiations with LHIC. The eventually-approved settlement includes (1) dismissal of the LHIC suit, (2) sale of the property to LHIC for $4.5 million, and (3) LHIC’s donation of 2.7 acres to the City for park and recreation purposes.
June 3, 2003
Any settlement will require the approval of Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes the property. She approves, having made what seems to be an arrangement with Horowitz designed to keep those 2.7 acres public (no longer as part of a garden growing food, but as an athletic field).
August 13, 2003
Pursuant to Charter section 273(c) – which governs the use of City-owned property in the settlement of lawsuits – the City Council unanimously (13 members present, two absent) approves the settlement in closed session.
August 26, 2003
No mayoral veto of that approval is forthcoming, and the settlement is official.
September 23, 2003
The City informs the Food Bank that its tenancy will end within 30 days because the property has been sold.
December 11, 2003
The City transfers title to the property to Ralph Horowitz and the Horowitz Family Trust.
January 8, 2004
The Horowitz Group gives notice to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank that its permit will terminate on February 29, 2004. As of this writing, the Food Bank claims to have given notice to the gardeners at this point, a claim the gardeners dispute.
South Central Farmers Feeding Families and 12 individual plaintiffs who had farmed at the property for periods of up to 12 years file a complaint against Horowitz, the City, and the Food Bank. The complaint’s six causes of action (with a seventh added March 11, 2004) boil down to this: by acting in closed session, the City Council failed to inform the public of its decision to sell the property, thus violating U.S. Code and the California Constitution. The Farmers win a temporary restraining order that prevents the otherwise immediate demolition of the garden.
Let’s look directly at the Appellate Court’s own summary of what happened next: 5
On March 16, 2004, the trial court granted a preliminary injunction continuing the temporary restraining order already in effect. The trial court found that plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the City sold the property without complying with City Administrative Code sections 7.21 and 7.22. Those regulations stated that City-owned real property could be sold if the City Council determined that the City no longer required the property and that the public interest or necessity required its sale. Before the City made this determination, it had to obtain an appraisal of the property’s fair market value, a recommendation of a minimum sale price from the Department of General Services, a recommendation from the Bureau of Engineering for the reservation of property, easements, or rights to be retained by the City, and verification from the City Planning Department that other city departments did not require the property for City use. The trial court found the City did not comply with these requirements.
Translation: the Code says the City has to wade through three of its own departments before it can sell property that it decides is surplus. But the City says that doesn’t apply, since the sale is part of a previous settlement. The trial court disagrees, and points out that nobody ever declared the property to be surplus in the first place. So they grant the injunction; the Farmers get to stay for a while, and the City and LHIC have to lay off. Next, of course, both the City and LHIC file appeals to get that injunction reversed.
In its appeal, the City held that “Imposing surplus property procedures compromises the City Council’s litigation settlement authority.” But the Farmers claimed the opposite, and the dispute now hinged upon a conflict in the law. Either the rules for selling surplus city property (Charter section 385) apply in all cases, and the City is in trouble for failing to follow those rules, or the City’s power to settle litigation (Charter section 273) overrides those rules, and the Farmers are the ones in trouble.
The Apellate Court found that the City’s right to settle litigation was inviolable. The sale is good; the City and Horowitz win; the Farmers lose. Here’s the kernel of the Court’s explanation:
We conclude that Charter section 385 does not clearly and explicitly curtail the exercise of the City’s statutory authority, as confirmed by its charter, to convey property in settlement of litigation. Charter section 273(c) clearly and explicitly gives the City Council authority to approve settlement of litigation that does not involve only the payment or receipt of money, and thus governs the transfer of the property as part of the City’s settlement of the LHIC litigation. The grant of the preliminary injunction must therefore be reversed.
This is ironic. The Farmer’s collective seems like a proxy for the collective public, struggling against the power of the individual capitalist fat-cat (Horowitz). But Horowitz gets the victory through an enhancement of public power: the power of the City to settle its old lawsuit with him. That lawsuit required the Los Angeles Harbor Department to sell the property back to him for peanuts — around five million dollars. All he had to do was pay that relatively small sum — and one more thing: of the 13 acre total, he had to donate 2.6 acres for a soccer field. That soccer field clause seems to have been the clincher that gave the settlement its required approval from the City Council. The beneficiary was Councilwoman Jan Perry – whose personal approval was also required – along with any of her constituents who might want to play soccer in the warehouse district.
March 3, 2006
In a City Hall press conference, “Deputy Mayor Frank issued his assurances that the Mayor’s office is working to prevent the eviction. They are currently working to get a contract option agreement with the developer, Ralph Horowitz. He stated that Horowitz is asking for $16.35 million for the land. To date $6 million has been raised from a private donor and the Trust for Public Land has put forth $3 million. The contract option would give 30 days for the remaining funds to be found and forestall the pending eviction.”6
Frank also announces a pending option agreement between the City and LHIC whereby the Harbor Department will give Horowitz $50,000 of “carrying costs” in exchange for an additional one-month stay of execution.
March 11, 2006
The L.A. Times publishes “Los Angeles Gothic,” an editorial on the case which glosses over the complex issues surrounding Horowitz’s claim on the property and simply treats his ownership as an unquestionable fait accompli: “The bottom line is that the courts ruled for Horowitz.”7
March 12, 2006
After the Mayor’s office receives over 2,000 phone calls from supporters of the Farmers, the option agreement is achieved. Henceforth the stay of eviction will remain in effect during the appeals process.
March 13, 2006
Juan Xavier Santos publishes an emotive response to the LA Times editorial, called “A Magic So Strong: The South Central Farm Must Live.”8
Santos places the case in the larger historical context, namely 500 years of land expropriation perpetrated by Euro-American elites upon indigenous (mostly Aztec and Mayan) peoples. That larger framework is advantageous because its moral authority subsumes the minutiae of the legal process, but disadvantageous for the same reason, since it leaves the de jure legality of the court’s ruling untouched while condemning the de facto injustice of inequality. Santos does touch on the legal issues, but suggests that the City’s sale of the property was simply illegal. Deeply immoral or not, grossly imprudent or not, the decision wasn’t straightforwardly illegal since it honored one portion of the law at the expense of another. And lest we forget: the Courts interpret the law, but their alleged dedication to abstract principles can blind them to the meaning of the facts. Recall the Rodney King beating case, in which horrific police brutality was excused in court, leading to the uprising whose consequences include the formation of the Community Garden at issue here.
“Why should they have the use of the land indefinitely, permanently? I don’t fathom that very well,” Horowitz told NPR in January.9 According to Deputy Mayor Frank, Horowitz estimates the value of the property at $25 million.10 That number may be exorbitant, since it apparently includes projected profits from a warehouse Horowitz hopes to build on the site. The buyout option currently on the table is for the City (i.e., the public) to pay Horowitz 16 million, nearly three times the price he was given in the original 1986 eminent domain seizure, a price which was roughly matched by Horowitz’ own purchase price when the City sold the property back to him. The “fair market value” of these 13 acres in the relevant years 1986, 1993, and 2005 is hard to determine, since any appraisers may or may not have been influenced by the considerable political forces at work.
Clara Irazábal, Professor of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California framed the issue this way:
[T]he relevant question is not whether this urban farm should be preserved. This is the wrong question and one that diminishes the stature of your office and the trust we have invested in you. The question is, rather, how can we best help multiply urban farms like this one throughout Los Angeles and cities of the Americas and the world. As the era of oil inescapably comes to an end, we are going to be faced with the need, whether we like it or not, to live more compactly, thrifty, cooperatively, and in more direct connection with, and responsible for, the production of our own food. In this context, not only [sic] does the South Central Farm not constitute a backward use of land in one of the largest and more prominent and modern cities of the world. Instead, it is a model for the future (and the future is now), one that can support the survival of our growing urban civilization. Maintaining the South Central Farm, Los Angeles and you as its mayor have the unique opportunity to become world visionaries and trail breakers.11
Trail breakers are people who move ahead of current trends and facilitate the progress of everybody else toward survival and the possibility of eventual flourishing. Most people assume that economic growth and commercial expansion are permanent trends, but a few hours at the Peak Oil portion of FTW is just one of myriad ways to learn how wrong that assumption is. Current trends actually point toward a massive and painful correction in every economic sector, followed by social upheaval and a terribly urgent effort to adapt. When the energy crash hit Cuba, its people endured a frightening interval of undernourishment called “the Special Period.” It happened after Soviet oil exports dried up, but before the Cuban people learned to powerdown and grow their own food. We are headed toward a Special Period of our own. Right now we are riding the crest of energy extraction. Just past the Peak, we can only see the ground falling away beneath us if we open our eyes; otherwise, we simply feel how high we’re riding and all seems well enough.
Let me quote Megan Quinn of Community Solutions on Havana, Cuba:
Cubans started to grow local organic produce out of necessity, developed bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers as petrochemical substitutes, and incorporated more fruits and vegetables into their diets. Since they couldn't fuel their aging cars, they walked, biked, rode buses, and carpooled…
Cubans are also replacing petroleum-fed machinery with oxen, and their urban agriculture reduces food transportation distances. Today an estimated 50 percent of Havana's vegetables come from inside the city, while in other Cuban towns and cities urban gardens produce from 80 percent to more than 100 percent of what they need. In turning to gardening, individuals and neighborhood organizations took the initiative by identifying idle land in the city, cleaning it up, and planting.
When the Australian permaculturists came to Cuba they set up the first permaculture demonstration project with a $26,000 grant from the Cuban government.
Los Angeles is blessed with 350 permaculturists whose work is on display for study and emulation at the South Central Farm. All we have to do is listen and learn. Let’s hope we get the chance.
The question at this moment is: Gardens or warehouses? Watch this space as FTW tracks which of the political, legal, economic, and moral possibilities of the South Central Farmers’ case will prevail in the continuing crisis to secure the future of this beloved L.A. farm.
1 The following timeline of events is based on a composite of (a) the APPEAL (2nd Appellate District, Division Three: (B175065), SOUTH CENTRAL FARMERS FEEDING FAMILIES et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. CITY OF LOS ANGELES et al., Defendants and Appellants. B175065, Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC311110; (b) “What We Are About,” a mission statement from the website of the farmers; and (c) Perry Crowe, “Down on the Farm,” a March 9 article in L.A. City Beat (Vol. 4, No. 11).
4 This low price is consistent with the $4.8 million Horowitz originally received in the eminent domain seizure, but inconsistent with the $13.3 million price of the sale between Public Works and the Harbor Department.
5 SOUTH CENTRAL FARMERS FEEDING FAMILIES et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. CITY OF LOS ANGELES et al., Defendants and Appellants. B175065, Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC311110
8 “The Mexican Indian hero Emiliano Zapata had a different idea – that the land belongs to those who work it.
On that premise, a premise Zapata paid for with his life, communal lands called ejidos developed in Mexico, protected by its constitution. That is, until NAFTA. Since then some six million indigenous farmers have been driven from the land, often at the point of a gun. They were driven out in the name of profit and progress to starve, to make their way in the lost cities of Mexico, to the alienated ghettos and barrios of LA.
But here, at the South Central Farm, Mayan farmers gave new life to ancient heirloom seeds, a rebirth and renewal of a heritage of that has continued, uninterrupted, for thousand of years; since the time before; since the ants taught Quetzalcoatl to grow corn. With others, these farmers grew corn and community.
The LA Times wants them driven out again.” http://la.indymedia.org/news/2006/03/150002.php?theme=default
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