To many, it looked like the struggle to save the world’s largest urban garden — the South Central Farm in Los Angeles — was defeated, a dream buried beneath the treads of the bulldozers that plowed the Farm under following the brutal invasion of an army of L.A. County Sheriffs that crushed the resistor’s encampment, turning the land from a liberated zone into an oppressive, occupied one. But now, two years later, all that could change. Here’s why, and how you can help make it change.
The secret of storytelling amongst the poor is the conviction that stories are told so that they may be listened to elsewhere, where somebody, or perhaps a legion of people, know better than the storyteller or the story’s protagonists, what life means. The powerful can’t tell stories: boasts are the opposite of stories, and any story however mild has to be fearless and the powerful today live nervously.
A story refers life to an alternative and more final judge who is far away. Maybe the judge is located in the future, or in the past that is still attentive, or maybe somewhere over the hill, where the day’s luck has changed (the poor have to refer often to bad or good luck) so that the last have become first.
Story-time (the time within a story) is not linear. The living and the dead meet as listeners and judges within this time, and the greater the number of listeners felt to be there, the more intimate the story becomes to each listener. Stories are one way of sharing the belief that justice is imminent. And for such a belief, children, women and men will fight at a given moment with astounding ferocity. This is why tyrants fear storytelling: all stories somehow refer to the story of their fall.
– From John Berger’s That have not been asked: ten dispatches about endurance in the face of walls
It’s not always a matter of justice; there are simply too many of us who know not to expect justice from this system that profits at the expense of all life: Sometimes it’s not a matter of justice, but as John Berger says above, it’s a matter of “luck.” Good luck or bad. Good Karma and bad, who’s in synch with the flow of change and the Times, and who stands foolishly against the tide. It’s like that this time. It’s a matter of luck, of grace, of Karma, of what is necessary as the times change. This time, we are determined: the last shall be first, life will come before profit, the poor before the wealthy, the natural will supercede the artificial. This time, if we have something to say about it — and we do, all of us — the Conquest is over.
No one could have predicted it, and frankly, no one did. There were those of us who had nothing to go on but this: we listened to the land, and the land spoke to us. We listened; we listened to what might be possible but seemed impossible; We refused to surrender dreaming; we refused to forget what had been born, the ancient, magical connection of land and a newly arising culture that touched so many of us here in LA: a connection that touched a nerve so deep in us that its resonance spread in a web of connection — and yes, we will say it — hope — across the world. Mayan Indians in a Zapatista community prayed for the land and for the life unfolding there. Native elders came and shared the lessons of their peoples. Red tailed hawks visited the trees.
The place is this one: The South Central Farm. More than any struggle in the history of this city, the forbidden ones, those with no face, no history, no role in the formal or informal myths that comprise the “image” that is Los Angeles, simple farmers and gardeners – campesinos, the indigenous and their descendants — broke through all barriers, uniting people from every racial and cultural group, and every strata and class in a deeply felt unity that spoke to the world entire. They never backed down, although, to all appearances, they went down along with the fences, trees and plants that were bulldozed when the land was seized by an army of Los Angeles Sheriffs. Even then one of the first bulldozers was stopped cold by the resistors who had liberated and occupied the land during a drawn out siege. Imagine. A bulldozer. Stopped. Cold. By a zucchini!
A zucchini sent down its exhaust pipe. No one could have made it up. No one would have believed it.
Just like no one might have imagined that the Farm could be reborn. Given the stranglehold of the myth of private property that has weighed on the land like an invading and occupying army for two years now, since the Farm was seized by the state on behalf of its alleged “owner” — developer Ralph Horowitz – it has seemed impossible that the stranglehold might be broken.
But, as luck would have it, there is a zucchini at hand. Sometimes it’s a matter of luck. Sometimes luck, and just a little imagination applied just so. Sometimes Karma catches up with the bad guys. Just so. That’s how it is this time. And so, there is hope where it seemed all hope had been slain or carried, deeply wounded, from the field.
Here’s the deal. Ralph Horowitz and his partner in crime, City Councilwoman Jan Perry, played it cool. They waited two years for things to cool off after their brutal take down of the Farm. They thought it was all forgotten. They didn’t raise a stir or a peep. Horowitz worked quietly, overseeing the design of a new, giant warehouse distribution center on the land the City Council had all – but given him, selling it at a loss of millions of taxpayer dollars. The man had a deal, and he knew it. So, he laid low, waited for the turmoil and the questions to blow over, for the Farm’s organization to unravel and dissipate, and laid his plans. He wanted something. He was going to prove to the world who he was and what he was. He was going to obliterate the last vestige of what had been the world’s largest urban garden, and replace it with a warehouse shaped like a giant “h.”
“h” for Horowitz, obvious as the “S” on Superman’s chest. He’d show us. He’d show us all.
Perhaps, as one writer suggested, the giant “h” really stands for “hubris.” Be that as it may, Horowitz is no rank amateur. It takes a pro to corner the City into giving you a free gift of $11 million dollars worth of land. It takes a pro to spin the tale into one about “the victimized capitalist” whose “property rights” have been violated. It takes a lot of pure nerve to take a gift of $11 Million dollars, then accuse those who worked the land you’ve been given of “expecting something for nothing.” He did it with a straight face. The man is a pro. And he’s got the title to the land, after all. Never discount a man like that.
The thing is, a long time ago, Horowitz did own the land, if such a thing can be called legitimate by any standard. But, the City of Los Angeles exercised eminent domain, stripping Horowitz of the title so it could build a trash incinerator — the Lancer project, it was called — there in the heart of South Central. But, the neighborhood, in one of the first major mobilizations around environmental justice for peoples of color, forced the city to capitulate on its plan. There’d be no incinerator. And Horowitz, showing the long range determination for which he’s known, made a bid to have the land returned his way. It didn’t happen.
To make a long story short, after the LA rebellion of ’92, the City sold the land to the semi-independent Port of Los Angeles in 1994 for $13M, and the Harbor let the food bank across the street from the site use it for a community garden. It blossomed into the largest urban farm in the world — the South Central Farm — feeding over 350 families and many in the neighborhood. Then, eleven years after it was first purchased for the Lancer Project incinerator, in backroom dealings that have yet to be explained, the City sold the land back to Horowitz for just $400,000 more than the price they originally paid him for it years before — very roughly speaking the City charged Horowitz about a third of the land’s market value — and considerably less than the price the Harbor had paid for it. Given spiraling land prices, it was a de facto gift of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to Horowitz — a fact that can not have escaped anyone, least of all Horowitz, who would soon attempt to market the 14 acre plot for over $16 million, all the while complaining about the “free ride” he was giving the Farmers.
For two years, the Farmers took time from their jobs and their farming to make twice-weekly trips to City Council meetings to implore the City to return the land to them, but by 2006 Horowitz had lined up the support of the Ninth District’s councilmember, Jan Perry, who iconic US representative Maxine Waters would soon characterize as Horowitz’s business “partner.” The Council wasn’t listening. Often, some of its members literally turned their backs as the Farmers spoke, an open insult.
As an eminent eviction approached, the Farmers occupied the land, supporters encamped there, with 24 hour patrols, tree sitters, blockades. indigenous ceremonies, rock, hip hop and Son Jarocho concerts, and press conferences with an array of celebrities from Hollywood, the music industry, and the realm of people-powered politics. Support poured in not only from Los Angeles or the US Left, but from around the world. Even the L.A. Times called the Farm “Magic.” They were right. It was a kind of Earth magic blossoming, to the amazement of millions, in what is arguably the most alienated city in the most alienated country in the world. But, the Times editors pretended to lament, property rights trump “magic” — no matter how captivating. And so it seemed. The whole thing has been bulldozed, the encampment smashed. What remains, to the naked “rational” eye, is a giant field of dried stubble.
And all this time, Horowitz has been waiting. And, he’s been dealing. Like we said, the man is a pro. His next slight of hand was almost as stunning as his last. This time, he got the City planning Department to waive an Environmental Impact Report normally required for major developments under California law.
Now, it’s quite a feat to get people responsible for even a modicum of environmental oversight to ignore reality so blatantly – to pretend that a warehouse distribution center that will pull over 2,500 diesel truck trips a day into a small residential area will have no appreciable negative environmental impacts. The feat is doubly stunning when you consider that there is not an environmental regulator walking who is unaware that diesel emissions, and, especially, what’s called diesel particulate matter, causes cancer, asthma and other severe respiratory problems, and that children, the ill, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to it. It might seem like rocket science to some, but you can find the truth in your first online search under “diesel emissions.” It’s terribly common knowledge. But, whatever the string, Horowitz, or perhaps his buddy Jan Perry, found it – and pulled it. And even though the site is near a middle school, Horowitz got his waiver. Not only were no significant conditions imposed on his project – but the City planners claimed the risks were so negligible that Horowitz didn’t even need to file an Environmental Impact Report – the potential problems didn’t even warrant an investigation, so to speak. The California State Legislature might disagree. It recently passed a bill, SB 974, sponsored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach that will generate $400 million a year, specifically to reduce diesel emissions associated with California ports in areas like the Alameda Corridor, (where the Farm land is located) in order to protect children from harm.
But, it looked like Horowitz was batting a thousand. Laughing on his way to the bank, like they say.
The Farmers had little notice, and almost no chance to act. Well, they had one chance, which is right next to no chance. That chance came on July 2nd. Tezozomoc, who, along with Rufina Juarez, the Farmers had elected to lead them, swore to himself that he would be at the one scheduled public hearing on the waiver of the Environmental impact report all by himself if need be.
As luck would have it, though, in three short weeks, Farm activists scoured the neighborhood, generated 140 original, mostly hand-written letters opposing the waiver from nearby residents, got hundreds of petition signatures from across the city, lined up support from major environmental groups – one group with a million members or more — the NRDC — filed their own report: a 21 page analysis objecting to the waiver, and the Farmers brought over 100 people out to the hearing to insist on protection for the lives and health of area residents. They ultimately overflowed the hearing chambers while the media flocked to the Farmer’s press conference and rally on the City Hall lawn. The demonstrators chanted, Azteca danzantes danced, musicians strummed vihuelas, and car horns gleefully pierced the din of downtown traffic — all on a weekday morning during the work week.
The Deputy Advisory Board of L.A.’s Planning Department relented even before the first resident spoke, announcing that the Board would reconsider the waiver of the Environmental Impact Report. The matter had already been cinched, just by the volume of letters the Department had received, even before the hearing opened. The period for filing comments by the public was extended for three more weeks.
Like luck. Like magic. Like the Lakota and Cheyenne — the ones who made it Custer’s last stand where Custer ran out of luck.
It began to look like Horowitz’s luck was running out, too.
CAUGHT RED- HANDED
No matter what you or anyone else did, Marx said, history would catch up with you: it was inevitable, it was relentless. The turning, the changing, were inevitable.
The old people had stories that said much the same, that it was only a matter of time and things European would gradually fade from the American continents. History would catch up with the White man whether the Indian did anything or not. History was the sacred text. The most complete history was the most powerful force.
– Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead
Someone thought — wrongly — that the ploy to waive an Environmental Impact Report for the Horowitz warehouse distribution center would slip right under the radar. Reports from inside Jan Perry’s staff indicate that Perry and Horowitz had assumed the South Central Farmers had evaporated as a political force to be reckoned with in L.A., and that they were shocked and angered on the 2nd of July to discover the Farmers and area residents in the streets — and once again in their faces — demanding justice. But the vitality, cohesion and determination of the Farmers and their support network wasn’t the only thing Perry missed; she also missed the last meeting of board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD – the air pollution agency mainly responsible for regulating and licensing stationary sources of air pollution for most of L.A., San Bernadino, Orange and Riverside Counties.) And, it seems, she never saw a devastating new critique of the Horowitz project coming from within her own domain as a SCAQMD board member. While she wasn’t looking, it seems someone made a move to cut Jan Perry’s political throat — at least as far as her infamous alliance with Ralph Horowitz goes.
On the same day the Farmers filled the chambers of the advisory board of the Department of City Planning to overflowing, the staff of the SCAQMD filed a report that not only served as a brutal calling to accounts on the waiver of an Environmental Impact Report for Horowitz, but that recommended in the strongest possible terms that any project that produces the kind of harms that the warehouse distribution center portends for the area be expressly “prohibited” by the City Planning Department.
The report faults the Planning Dept. on numerous counts, from elements as simple as using a skewed map of the area, to its failure to adequately assess the environmental impacts of the construction process and its failure to accurately assess the actual diesel emissions the warehouse will concentrate in the area (especially of cancer-causing diesel particulate matter) or to make meaningful recommendations for mitigating these dangers. Even beneath the bureaucratic language of the report, it is hard to miss the almost palpable sense of disgust, even outrage, that underlies the message.
The report insists that the Planning Dept. re-examine its recommendations on a number of fronts, and strongly suggests stringent guidelines for mitigating potential environmental and health impacts of the project while noting for example that certain mitigations the Department takes almost for granted could result only from the use of equipment that, in one case, does not even yet exist. The SCAQMD insists that if City Planning is going to claim such mitigations as a given, that it also show how it is going to access such non-existent equipment to ensure them.
And, while City Planning has suggested that any environmental or health impacts would be so minimal as to not even require an Environmental Impact Report, the SCAQMD insists that, were the Department to approve such a project over the SCAQMD’s objections, that necessary mitigations might include, for example, the construction of new freeway off-ramps that lead directly to or near the Horowitz facility (at the cost, no doubt, of millions of taxpayer’s dollars, millions beyond the millions Horowitz has already pocketed.)
Dust in the Wind
Ralph Horowitz has tried to destroy every root of every plant that was the South Central Farm. Like a killer driving a knife into his target over and over, he’s plowed the land over and over in an attempt to dismember the last remnants of an identity he seems to want to erase from the face of the Earth. He’s planned to erase what was, and replace it with his giant warehouse — which is to be designed in the shape of a giant “h”. The soil remains rich with the organic remains that have been plowed under time and again, although, with the destruction of the many of the root networks that permeated it, much the soil has become silty, loose and windblown, shifting to fill and slightly flatten the crevices between the mounds of the plowed furrows, and lifting with the winds to leave fine layers of dust on the windows of houses and of cars parked nearby. The planned construction would kick up immense amounts of dust into the air, as 57,00 cubic yards of soil are excavated and exported by truck from the 14 acre site.
Air Quality regulators call such airborne particulate matter “fugitive dust,” and they’re calling out City planners for calculating the amount of such dust based on an assessment that only five of the site’s 14 acres will be involved in the excavation. Beyond that, they note, planners focused only on the excavation of the soil itself, and failed to make clear whether their calculations included the impacts of trucks hauling out the tons of soil. They insist that the “fugitive dust analysis” be revised, that the City guarantee that the excavation will be limited to five acres, and that construction emissions do not exceed the phony claims made by City planners.
Further, the City planners claimed that all of the equipment used during construction will be fitted with a special diesel oxidation catalyst to lower the impacts of diesel emissions by 40% in the area during construction. The SCAQMD, however, notes that such specialized equipment is only available for a total of 3 engine types, and that it is all-but unavailable for off-road construction equipment.
In effect the SCAQMD challenges the City planners to prove that such equipment will be available and used on the Horowitz construction, or to demonstrate exactly by what method the City plans to ensure the 40% reductions they are claiming will be achieved. They are flatly calling the City planner’s bluff.
Alongside seven other recommendations on the construction phase of the warehouse complex alone, the Air Quality people also insist that watering or other non-toxic means be used to reduce the “fugitive dust” — a method proven to reduce airborne particulate matter by some 60%. According to sources with industry experience, however, watering 3 times per day, as recommended by the Air Quality staff, would likely turn the slowly expanding mini-dust bowl that was the South Central Farm into a bowl of heavy mud and water, greatly increasing the difficulty of excavating the underground parking facility Horowitz wants to serve the giant “h” shaped warehouse. Ralph Horowitz has a new problem he can’t just plow under, this time.
The Free Ride is Over
City planners can’t dart under the radar on this one, either. The SCAQMD is demanding written responses on all of the issues it raises, as per the law (public resources code, section21092.5), and they want these responses in writing before a final Environmental Impact Report is issued. The problem for City planners is obvious. They hadn’t planned to require an environmental report from Horowitz at all. That’s what the so-called “neg dec” they issued was all about in the first place — another free ride for Jan Perry’s favorite developer. Like children darting under turnstiles, they somehow weren’t counting on conductors checking for tickets.
But as the report progresses, it looks even worse for Horowitz and the giant “h”. It seems they not only lack tickets, but they may not be able to cover the fare, even if they were to admit that the free ride is over.
To excuse (or cover-up) their complicity in the harms of the Horowitz plan, City planners apparently tried other slight of hand maneuvers to evade detection of the reality behind the waiver they offered the developer. The Air Quality District called them out for one scam, in particular. The City planners estimated diesel emissions for the Horowitz project using a supposedly “similar” facility and its emissions as a measure for the probable impacts on South Central residents in this case.
But the warehouse used in the comparison served “substantially fewer” trucks than the 2, 581 trips a day reported for the Horowitz facility, thus, the District notes that diesel emissions (and, consequently, cancer risks) were “substantially underestimated” by City planners. The District calls on the City to “correct or explain this apparent discrepancy.” The report also accuses City planners of underestimating the amount of time trucks will stand, engines idling at the facility, by as much as one third. Air quality regulators insist on a mitigation plan that prohibits trucks from idling for more than the ten minutes City planners claim is realistic, and they demand the City show an enforcement mechanism that will make such a prohibition credible.
But it doesn’t stop there. The SCAQMD lists an additional 16 measures that would be warranted to mitigate the impact of diesel exhaust and particulate matter — including the multi-million dollar construction of one or more additional freeway exits that would bypass the community or limit the amount of time any given truck is on the surface roads in the immediate area.
The bottom line, however, is this. The SCAQMD recommends that the City “specifically prohibit” land uses at the site that would, in an area already full of warehouses, “further expose” nearby schools, health facilities, the aged and the ill to “additional cancer risks from diesel particulate matter.”
In other words, the SCAQMD is telling the City “Shut this project down.” “Prohibit its construction and operation.” The struggle for environmental justice is full of situations like this one, and lawsuits are a constant and predictable part of the terrain. The air quality regulators cannot be unaware that any effort on the part of the City to ignore or bypass these recommendations opens the door to a strongly based lawsuit to force the City to comply.
Force the City to comply… With the law… No more free rides… Conductors… Sometimes your luck just runs out. Sometimes you stand too long, too strong, against the wrong tide, and do so with the wrong ethics. Sometimes, one might notice, for things to go right in the end, you have to be right: for things to be sustained, one might notice, they have to be sustainable, they have to be grounded in the real. Sometimes, as Leslie Marmon Silko notes, history catches up with you. It’s inevitable. Relentless, she says. Every house of cards, like every empire, falls when the wrong wind blows. Sometimes, all it takes is a quick puff of air from the lips; or a zucchini dropped just so in the exhaust pipe of a bulldozer clanking over the land the way that tanks clank over people’s lives. The way a sophisticated developer in the second largest city in the Empire falls before the onslaught of a few Indian campesinos from Mexico and their backers with a few cell phones, a copier, and almost no money at all. Like magic. Like karma, Like luck. Like someone, somewhere, “located in the future, or in the past that is still attentive, or maybe somewhere over the hill” is listening.
The way we’ve been listening to the land…
And it’s a good thing. With all the changes coming, we’re gonna need that land. We’re gonna need that food, those skills, these Farmers. All of us. Together.
If you’re paying attention, it’s obvious.
We’re certain of it.