The Garden and contemporary community gardens

When I moved to Los Angeles, a childhood friend of mine quickly introduced me to the LA Community Garden Council and one of their gardens in East Hollywood. I took on the role of treasurer for the garden, and met frequently with a man named Al who dealt with the finances for all of the gardens in LA County. All of the gardens that fall under the LACGC are unique to their communities, and all of the land has been obtained in different ways. Al mentioned a giant garden in South Los Angeles several times that was really great until it wasn’t. My busy schedule delayed my investigation of this garden until very recently when a fellow student told me I should watch the documentary The Garden, which was the quickest and easiest way to learn about the story.

The Garden describes a 14 acre piece of land in South Los Angeles, called South Central Farm, that was essentially lent to the people in South LA to garden from 1994-2006. This land, first privately owned, and then acquired by the City through eminent domain, was initially intended for a waste incinerator, and the residents of South LA successfully fought against the City of Los Angeles to stop the construction of this. The residents were eventually permitted to use the land for a community garden; however, they did not have a lease or permanent permission. At any given time, this land could be taken away from them, and that is, eventually, exactly what happened.

The documentary does an excellent job of showing the garden and detailing the legal battle that ensued for the residents to try and gain ownership of the land. Aside from the legal battle that took place, there was a battle among the residents of South LA due to a racial divide.

I found the story of this community garden heartbreaking, as I think that community gardens have many assets for a community. At the same time, after being involved in a community garden, I am aware of the many downfalls, difficulties, and logistics that must take place to ensure success.

From, the benefits of a community garden are:

– improving quality of life of the people who garden
– stimulate social interaction
– reduce crime
– preserve green space
– conserves resources
– reduces city heat from streets and parking lots
– provides opportunities for intergenerational and cross-cultural connections
– can provide a catalyst for neighborhood and community development

Gardening is a great way to be physically active, get all ages involved, and provide access to fresh, healthy produce. These are all great things! On the other hand, as was seen in South LA and exists in many community gardens of varying sizes, there can be cultural tension, problems with land ownership, and fissures in the garden community. In my garden, I observed a great divide between people with different cultural backgrounds, and a threat that the dominant group may eventually be able to drive the other out. While community gardens can be great, it is unlikely that they will feed an entire community. We all cannot be fortunate enough to have a 14 acre plot of land! We also must be careful to create and observe rules from the origination of a community garden. LACGC is very valuable in this respect. They help communities see their garden dreams to fruition, and are there to oversee and maintain peace and order if necessary.

I am a firm believer in the power of food to build community, empower people, and drive economies forward. Do I believe that community gardens are the end-all-be-all to our food and community problems? No way! Do I believe they are one of many necessary solutions? Absolutely! There are other ways to build community through food. You may want to check out the group Fallen Fruit, who create food maps of neighborhoods, and provide fruiting trees to homeowners that will agree to plant them on their property line (which gives half of the yield to the homeowner, and half of the yield to the public). We can also strive for more produce in corner stores and bodegas, and cooking demonstrations and cooking classes that can educate the community, while bringing them together. Before I go off on a tangent, I will bring this back around to what I started with. The Garden did an excellent job of telling the story of what can go wrong in a community garden. It also showed the many assets of a garden to the health of individuals and communities. Now go watch The Garden!

-Jackie Illum, 2nd year MPL, Concentration: Economic Development


5 responses to “The Garden and contemporary community gardens

  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the movie (maybe 2008?), but I remember really feeling for the farmer’s, especially since, at the time of the movie, nothing had been done with the lot. Do you know any updates on that lot?

    The only bit of question I have from your post is the statement about community gardens reducing crime. In a way, I think crime might actually jump if the lot subdivisions aren’t clear and people are stealing each others food (intentionally or not). Plus, as both the movie and you pointed out, cultural divides lead to frustration and animosity, which can culminate in violence and vandalism.

    I, of course, might just be being too critical. I think “reduce crime” is one of those really loaded political phrases that every organization throws out there with their mission statement, you know?

    • Crime reduction can be tricky, but data has shown that community gardens can help reduce/alleviate crime in a neighborhood. The primary way this is done is because a once vacant lot is now being occupied by people during many hours of the day, making the surrounding area safer (eyes on the street). That being said, there are definitely many instances of people stealing from other people’s plots, and in our garden, we’ve even had strangers walk into the garden when we have the gates open and steal things. To be honest though, I would rather someone steal my squash than shoot/rob me on the street!

      • Jane Jacobs for the win! I see what you’re saying. I was looking at the internal nature of crime reduction/jumping and not the big picture. And you’re right, if the big picture is getting shot, I’d prefer to fix the big picture situation.

  2. Pingback: Selections from Plan On! My brilliants’ blog « Urban ethics and theory·

  3. The plants for life. This is a great idea for improving and for the understating of the community. We create a big self sustainable community garden, maintained to preserve nature and to help with local food production. With many people around who are interested in helping. But what happens? Yes, they took it down. It´s is very heartbreaking. I participate in a similar project – it´s about sharing gardens for individuals. Basically it´s to make the place available for everyone who is interested in gardening, but has no suitable place. I´m convinced that community gardens are a great way how to socialize and how to pay more attention to the nature. I definitely think that community gardening or even shared gardens should have more attention from the government and city council. The people from the documentary need all the appreciation they can for fighting for their cause.

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