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Pledging the Farm

JUST WHEN IT LOOKED LIKE the South Central Farm was doomed, the fate of the 14 acres of contested land at 41st and Alameda streets has turned into a whole new ball game. The arrival of Hollywood celebrities and old-school folk singers to try to save it only masks the real story. It’s a high-stakes political chess match, one in which the media circus at the actual farm is almost the least interesting element.

The Annenberg Foundation has pledged $10 million to the Trust for Public Land, which has been trying to raise money to buy the farm from landowner Ralph Horowitz, for $16.35 million. The Annenberg Foundation itself would not purchase the farm, but pledge the money to the trust.

But a pledge is only a pledge, and nothing has been finalized, said Annenberg Foundation managing director Leonard Aube. It’s unclear whether the $6 million previously raised by the trust is still at play. Bob Reid, the trust’s L.A. area director, did not return phone calls.

One high-level source familiar with the ongoing talks said the Annenberg Foundation might finance the balance of the asking price, which would put the large, powerful foundation in a long-term commitment to the farm, and in an intensely risky situation.

Lauren Bon, a foundation trustee and the artist behind the Not a Cornfield project near downtown, which Annenberg also funded, said the whole situation was too volatile to comment on the specifics. “We were trying to form a public-private partnership. Whether or not [Annenberg is] going to be stepping in is still to be seen.” She would not say what conditions must be met for the foundation to make good on its pledge.

And why now?

“The reason is obvious,” Bon said. “The South Central Farm is an extremely important monument to many things we need to be looking at in our society.”

Bon is not the only player showing some anxiety over the negotiations. All of the players — Horowitz, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, City Councilwoman Jan Perry, the nonprofit Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, the embattled farm organizers (Tezozomoc, Rufina Juarez and Fernando Flores) and a group of farmers who left or were kicked off the site — have competing or overlapping agendas that seem to change minute-to-minute. Down at the farm, the possibility that sheriff’s deputies could swoop in and enforce an eviction hangs over the place, which has been locked up almost round-the-clock — except, of course, when Hollywood celebrities want to climb up a tree.

The tension is understandable. After all, 14 acres of green land in the middle of an industrial and redevelopment corridor in the densest city in America doesn’t come up for grabs very often. Which serves as a good reminder that although the news media and blogosphere have distorted the visual aspects of the story that appeal to the senses of bourgeois progressives — “humble” farmers, kooky celebrities, fruits and vegetables — the battle over the South Central Farm is in fact a classic L.A. narrative: a development struggle.

Even if the farm remains as green space, someone or some entity will have to be its steward. The land will have to be cleaned, organized, regulated and maintained. The more likely scenario of some kind of mixed-use future, as in green space, soccer fields, a “community center” and possibly some kind of jobs-generating development, opens a complicated set of questions: Who will pay for it? Who will develop it? Who will run it? Who will hold it accountable? Who will run home with the credit?

Organizer Flores, an architect, has floated around his own version of a future development for the site, which helps explain the farm leadership’s quasi militant tactics at preserving their hold on the land. Tezozomoc said Thursday that the Sheriff’s Department has been intimidating the farmers with helicopter flyovers. If deputies move in to evict the activists who have converged on the farm from all over the state, civil disobedience is not out of the question, he said. “We are prepared to exercise our constitutional and civil rights under [the Constitution of] the United States of America.”

Perry, who has been on the receiving end of relentless and race-tinged verbal abuse by farm activists during public comment at City Council meetings, would like to see soccer fields, gardens and environmentally sound jobs created at the site. Along with jobs, private development would also generate tax revenue, which could be pumped back into neighborhoods surrounding the farm, she argues.

“It’s a beautiful space, there’s no disputing that, and I got a good track record already in developing green space in other parts of the district, and I’ll continue to do so,” Perry said Thursday. “But this is a private-property dispute, and to disregard that is not dealing with the realty of the situation.”

In a letter to the mayor dated April 4 and cosigned by council members Herb Wesson, Janice Hahn, Bernard Parks and Tony Cardenas, Perry wrote that her South L.A. district was in dire need of jobs, and that a compromise should be reached on the garden-farm-development: “The lack of solid, low-skilled employment opportunities creates a sense of hopelessness, one symptom of which is the high number of ex-offenders in the area that can not successfully re-integrate into society without viable employment options. These issues can only be addressed by creating jobs that are accessible to the community.”

The struggle has created some strange bedfellows. Last Saturday, the farm organizers met with Noreen McClendon and Mark Williams of the Concerned Citizens group to work out a deal to make a new alliance, Williams said.

Over the years, South Central Farm activists battled with Williams’ mother, the late Juanita Williams, over what to do with the land. Williams wanted soccer fields, while the farm leaders said they weren’t necessary. The acrimony took on a racial tone, with not entirely accurate perceptions forming that the Williams clan represented the interests of established black residents of South-Central, while the farm leaders represented the aspirations of immigrants from Mexico and Central America – even though the soccer fields would have mostly benefited the new immigrants.

So, in exchange for coming out in support of the farm, Mark Williams sought from the organizers a public statement in which they would apologize for suggesting his mother was racist. Along the way, the talks broke down. “They had to be able to say that they were wrong to call my mother a racist and an elitist for advocating for Latino families,” Williams said.

Williams on Wednesday said he now supports Tezozomoc and Juarez, but that “Westside environmentalists” are improperly influencing them. “The Westside environmentalists, they want the land for their damn selves.”

WOULD CONCERNED CITIZENS of South Central Los Angeles be interested in managing it?

“It doesn’t have to be us, but why not us?” asked Williams. “Our capacity to manage property is well established. We want to open it up so it’s a place for everybody, so why not consider us along with any other of these nonprofit corporations? The elected leadership have been surrounded by a bunch of folks who are not stakeholders. They’ve turned this into some kind of symbolic struggle.”

Then there’s the political element of the story. Nothing would reenergize Villaraigosa’s progressive street cred as one of his vintage I’m-a-uniter finishes: Mayor Steps In, Saves the Day — Again, especially after he’s spent so much time and energy recently on vacuous media appearances, the expansion of his powers through the school takeover plan and the courting of large business interests such as the National Football League.

At a press conference two weeks ago, Villaraigosa said: “Let me publicly, publicly, ask Mr. Horowitz to sell his property for what he bought it for,” which was $5 million. Villaraigosa also said he was “the only elected official in the city of Los Angeles” who has fought on behalf of more urban gardens, a claim that negates the work done for gardens by members of the City Council.

In the center of all this, one wonders where the actual farmers stand on the future of the site. Difficult to say, as the farm has effectively transformed into a fortified encampment, with activists standing as sentries at the locked gates and at the corners that ring the garden. Meanwhile, the plots at 41st and Alameda appear to have fallen into neglect.

Plants are dying or overgrown with weeds, and many plots are covered with rubbish. Hoy and La Opinion, the local Spanish-language dailies, have been running stories for months delving into the internal fighting at the South Central Farm. Some reports have suggested that many of the farmers care less about staging demonstrations and fighting to the finish than they do about simply having room to grow their herbs somewhere in peace, even if it means going elsewhere.

In fact, maps detailing the distribution of the South Central plots, which were obtained by the L.A. Weekly, show a high level of attrition in recent years, as more and more farmers were turned off by the leadership or were forced out of the farm — their plants destroyed, their plots locked shut — by Tezozomoc, Juarez and their allies. Many moved on to a new community garden at 111th Place and Avalon Boulevard farther south, where representatives from the mayor’s office have been dropping by to figure out a long-term lease and help the displaced farmers set up a governing and maintenance structure.

At the Stanford-Avalon garden on Wednesday afternoon, as a group of men stood around a barbecue grilling carne asada tacos with nopales, a new South Central Farm defector arrived, saying he was fed up with being locked out of the farm, being unable to water his plants, and being crowded by “hippies” and “gabachos” who’ve taken up their cause. The farmer said strangers at the gate are now charging a $1 entry fee at the South Central Farm.

“It’s a mess. Everything is drying up because there’s no watering,” the farmer said.

“They don’t even let you take out nopales to eat,” another farmer chimed in.