The Garden: Growing More Than Food
by Daphne Bishop
Can planting community gardens in an urban landscape be akin to the Declaration of Independence or a non-violent revolution? For the South Central Farmers of Los Angeles, the creation of a 14-acre oasis in the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King riots was meant to heal and nourish. Eventually its success challenged the city’s political establishment in ways the farmers could never have imagined.
After twelve years of growing their own food and launching successful farmers markets in a once devastated area, the South Central Farmers were given an eviction notice. A developer said he owned the land and wanted it back to build a warehouse. City officials offered sympathy, but claimed there was little they can do.
The battle waged to save the largest inner city community garden in the nation from bulldozers is wrenchingly chronicled in “The Garden.” The film, by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, was one of this year’s Academy Awards nominees for Best Documentary Feature. With plot twists and dead ends worthy of Dashell Hammet or Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” the tale is an expose of political and social corruption as well as class warfare.
Rather than capitulate, the farmers organized, peacefully demanding the “justice for all” promised in America’s founding documents. They raised disturbing questions: Why was the land sold to a wealthy developer for millions of dollars less than fair market value? Why was the transaction done in a closed door session of the Los Angeles City Council? Were they being shoved aside because they were poor?
Kennedy, who spent four years filming, noted that many of the farmers had lived fairly quiet lives, and had never been engaged in public action before their livelihoods were threatened. The majority were immigrants from Latin America with a great deal of pride in their cultural heritage. A few had training in non-violent dissent and helped hone the skills of others. From September of 2003 until June 2006, the farmers worked, attended city council meetings and rallied the public, including prominent supporters Daryl Hannah, Danny Glover and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). On June 13th, 2006, the farmers were physically evicted by police and the gardens were plowed under.
The search for justice is a theme Kennedy also explored in an earlier documentary “OT: Our Town.” That film is set in Compton, California, where the high school has no money for drama productions, let alone a stage. The school hadn’t produced a play in 20 years. “OT” shows the determination of a group of students and their teachers to produce an updated version of Thornton Wilder’s classic, “Our Town,” and by doing so, challenge society’s lack of faith in what poor, inner city students can achieve.
I asked the filmmaker recently whether he had always been drawn to the quest for justice.
Born in Kentucky, he grew up in the culturally expansive environments of Greenwich Village, Berkeley and Oakland. Both his father and step-father were civil rights attorneys. Kennedy said he was taught to “question authority, question everything,” but he also, “was being taught hopefully that we are all equal,” and should treat each another accordingly. His life experiences deepened his interest in justice.
“It’s important on a big scale, but also down to a smaller level….is there justice between family members? Do we treat each other fairly? How do we speak to each other?”
In filming “OT,” he found that some of the students reminded him very much of “kids I grew up with in Oakland.” His connection with some of the South Central Farmers has continued since the 2006 eviction, and he’s a regular customer, buying fresh produce from them at the Hollywood Farmers Market.
Kennedy spends a considerable amount of time promoting “The Garden” still in limited distribution. When we spoke, he was preparing to leave for Indonesia to show the film at the US Consulate. Documentaries are often a hard sell in the land of the Multiplex, and can sound “on paper” like regional stories. Yet Kennedy is quick to note how in reality, the drama of “The Garden” was “a roller coaster ride of ups and downs.” Indeed, it is a story with as many good guys, bad guys, and eleventh hour surprises as popular cinema.
He looks forward to the release of the film on DVD this August, and believes that given the national interest in local food and the spread of urban community gardens, the message is timely. President Obama and his family are gardening on the White House lawn, another indication of how passionate people have become about growing their own food, he says.
Kennedy hopes to inspire people confronted by challenges to initiate new and sustainable models of food distribution. “The biggest advice is, ‘don’t give up!’ Don’t say ‘I can’t,’ or ‘It’s not my fault,’ or ‘It’s not my problem.’ Especially in politics. There was no such thing as the word ‘no’ for the farmers. Get as many people involved as you can to work together.”
The story of “The Garden” did not end with the last frame of the film. A “take back the farm” action planned for June 12th and 13th, will mark the third anniversary of the eviction. Scheduled events include a rally outside LA City Hall, a press conference and an encampment at the still vacant site of the destroyed gardens. One of the goals of the South Central Farmers remains to convince the city that with the California economy in dire straits, a sustainable food production makes more economic sense than building a warehouse, especially, they say, when LA Port shipping is down 40 percent.
Three years have passed, yet the developer has not filed an environmental impact report, something he must do by the end of June or forfeit rights to the land, according to Kennedy. These factors, and more, may herald a positive change in the farmers’ future, even though the same city councilors are in office and “are not budging.”
“Even five years ago, we didn’t have global warming as big a concern; we didn’t have the local food movement developed the way it is now; we didn’t have constant news of people being poisoned by food.”
Because of changes in consciousness about food production and a desire for closer ties to the land, Kennedy opined that if the South Central Farmers had gotten their expulsion notice in 2009 instead of 2004, “I would hope that the city of LA wouldn’t stand for it, but would say that The Garden should be celebrated.
Sometimes, as in the bleakest days of our national history, victory comes when it is least expected and through the most unlikely of circumstances. Perhaps, greenery will bloom once again from the wreckage. And Kennedy says: “If there is a moment of them actually getting the farm back, I will be there filming.”
See The Garden at select theaters:
05/29 Amherst MA, Amherst Theatre
05/29 Salt Lake City UT, Broadway Theatre
06/05 Grand Rapids MI, UICA
06/09 Normal IL, Normal Theatre
06/11 Saratoga NY, Saratoga Film Forum
06/12 Portland OR, Hollywood Theatre
06/12 Tallahassee FL, Regal Miracle 5
06/12 Charlotte NC, Regal Park Terrace
06/19 Tucson AZ, The Loft
06/26 Houston TX, Museum of Fine Art
06/26 Austin TX, Alamo
07/03 Nashville TN, Belcourt Theatre
07/24 Santa Fe NM, CCA