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Fallow Dreams

Developer Ralph Horowitz is puzzled by all this talk about an offer from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office to buy his 14 acres at 41st and Alameda streets, otherwise known as the lightning rod of the modern environmentalist and Chicano movement, the South Central Farm.

“?‘An offer of a proposal’ — I never even heard of that,” Horowitz told the L.A. Weekly. “I don’t know what that means, it has no significance whatsoever.”

Villaraigosa, speaking at City Hall just hours after the South Central Farmers had been evicted early Tuesday, somberly told reporters that Horowitz turned down an offer from the Annenberg Foundation and the Trust for Public Land to buy his property for $16.35 million. But there was never any actual money offered to Horowitz for his land, he said.

Not a penny.

Responds Horowitz, “There was nothing for me even to respond to. There was nothing to reject.”

Instead, the mayor took a potential element of a potential offer and made it sound fancy. He focused on a letter that the Annenberg Foundation had sent to Horowitz more than a week ago and put it out as a “proposal” to buy the land. According to the proposal, the foundation would deliver $10 million if Horowitz would loan himself the rest of the asking price for up to 18 months while the Trust for Public Land tried to come up with the money. There were other conditions that Horowitz found “incoherent.” Horowitz said it was never an actual offer, or at least not the kind he’s used to seeing in the real estate business.

Villaraigosa and Larry Frank, his deputy who worked on the deal, said the “proposal” was on the table and that Horowitz rejected it, saying the land was worth more, and that ultimately he didn’t want to sell it to some activists who had vilified and offended him.

On the Annenberg end, Leonard Aube, the foundation’s managing director, said he was dismayed by Villaraigosa’s characterization of the pledge as more than what it was. “[Annenberg trustees] made a gift commitment, it’s firm, but that’s the extent of it.”

With no deal, the developer went ahead with his plans to evict the farmers, seeking their removal when the option-to-buy period ended. Meanwhile, Villaraigosa cast himself and his office as heroic champions of green space who were concentrating all their superhuman political will on somehow saving the South Central Farm from doom. At one point, the mayor even suggested Horowitz sell the land back for what he bought it for last, $5 million.

“That’s a wonderful suggestion from the mayor,” Horowitz huffed sarcastically. “Over the last three years, we had to carry the land, we had to pay the taxes, we had to pay the insurance, and immense legal bills. We’ve had immense cost.”

Horowitz added, “I thought giving the city a soccer park was enough,” referring to a 2.6-acre donation he promised to make to the city in his 2003 buy-back deal. The soccer fields are still a go.

On Tuesday, sheriff’s deputies fulfilled Horowitz’s wishes and carried out the eviction of the South Central Farmers — or, more accurately, 17 of their supporting activists.

The ordeal, broadcast nationwide, ended a 14-year history of urban gardening at 41st and Alameda. Born from the ashes of the 1992 riots, the South Central Farm ended with police in riot gear breaking apart activists who staged a sit-in on the street outside the farm, the last stand in a struggle supporters saw as a black-and-white battle between “humble” immigrants and one “greedy” developer.

The story, of course, is a lot more complicated. The recap is that the city took the land from Horowitz in 1986 through eminent domain, goofed on plans to build a trash incinerator there, and sold it back to Horowitz in 2003 for $5 million. By then, the land was a full-scale farm.

Then things got even more complicated. Horowitz and the farmers, led by Tezozomoc and Rufina Juarez, began suing each other, back and forth. Farmers began fighting over the land’s future with outside forces, including Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles and City Councilwoman Jan Perry. And they began fighting among themselves. As legal avenues were exhausted, some of the farm’s allies turned into enemies. Questioning farmers were ejected, their plots destroyed. Everyone was considered suspect. It became a movement for absolutists.

Then celebrity tree-sitters arrived. The spectacle factor skyrocketed.

It all culminated on Tuesday, just before dawn, in the hours when these things tend to happen. Deputies led a slick protest-neutralizing operation, keeping supporters and media at bay behind lines of police officers when the eviction started at about 5 a.m. John Quigley and actress Daryl Hannah, described by sheriff’s Sgt. Val Rosario as “a female white adult,” kept their perch in a tree until they were plucked from the foliage. More than a dozen activists chained themselves to 55-gallon drums of fresh cement and had to be pried loose. Two of them were taken away by ambulance. There were 17 arrests, Rosario said. LAPD said 27 more people were arrested on the street outside, where farm supporters had staged a sit-in.

Most of the people there were supportive protesters, many carrying signs scornful of Villaraigosa. A few campesinos watched nervously.

“I feel very frustrated, very angry, very sad, but, at the same time, I hope we can still win,” said farmer Manuel Cedillo, 49.

Nearby, facing microphones and tape recorders, a harried Tezozomoc said in Spanish, “The battle will continue. This is only one stage.” Tezozomoc made an unintentional point. While the battle over the immediate physical makeup of the South Central Farm ended ingloriously, in a broader context, the fate of 41st and Alameda is still up in the air. After all, 14 acres of green land in the middle of an industrial and redevelopment corridor in one of the densest cities in America doesn’t come up for grabs very often. Which serves as a good reminder that although the news media and blogosphere relied heavily on the visual aspects of the story, the battle over the South Central Farm is, in fact, a classic L.A. narrative: a development struggle.

“I think it’s just beginning,” said City Councilwoman Jan Perry. “It’s the last piece of assembled land this large in the 9th District, . . . and I would imagine [Horowitz] has any number of suitors lined up to speak with him.”

Perry has said that, in addition to the soccer fields and possibly more green space, she’d like to see environmentally sound jobs generated on the site, and a redevelopment project that would pump money back into the neighborhood. Horowitz did not say if he had received other offers for the property, but, by the sound of things, Perry’s vision will materialize.

“Of course it will happen,” Horowitz said. “She wanted two things, she wanted jobs and she wanted a soccer park, and I agree to give her both. Of course, that makes me a bad guy. . . . It’s not an uncommon place for me to be. No media ever cast a developer next to Santa Claus.”

Horowitz said he was also driven to inflexibility by the manner in which he was demonized by the farmers and their supporters. In his City Hall press conference, Villaraigosa said Horowitz was subjected to anti-Semitic innuendo on the South Central Farm Web site.

Villaraigosa was hoping for a progressive-uniter photo finish, reminding people that the farm could have been a step forward in making L.A. “the greenest big city in America.” But Villaraigosa never directly addressed an obvious barrier to progress on the farm: the farm organizers themselves. He only hinted that the leadership’s sometimes-divisive rhetoric was to blame for the breakdown in talks. “Unacceptable. Anybody that would make remarks that are anti-Semitic, or racial remarks, have no business” doing so, the mayor said.

Outside the Mayor’s Office, farmers and their supporters stood helplessly, lobbing criticism at Horowitz and Villaraigosa alike. “That’s a park for my children. It’s a park where they feel comfortable, it’s a way to ease stress,” said farmer Benjamin Velasquez, 39. “And where is Villaraigosa? Where is he? We want him to show his face. They’re destroying all the greenery.”

Velasquez was near tears, understandably. For an almost unbelievable 14 years, the South Central Farmers stuck to their cause and kept a hold on an enormous parcel of land in the middle of the city, defying lawsuits and court orders, rejecting the city’s traditional political arena, and remaining stubbornly confident in the overriding strength of their moral argument: He who works the land, owns the land.

As for Horowitz, was he ever moved by the concepts of green space, self-reliance, urban gardening, immigrant agriculture? Ever? Even slightly?

“No,” he said. “They sued the city and sued me as thanks for letting them use the land for free for 12 years. I thought the gardeners’ conduct completely deteriorated after that. Why should I reward that kind of conduct?”


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