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Q&A: Director and Farmer From 'The Garden'

One of the South Central farmers shows off chayote from the garden that is no more. (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Scott Hamilton Kennedy's 2008 documentary, "The Garden," revolves around a classic people-against-the-system struggle. Hundreds of Latinos in South Central Los Angeles were happily growing food for their families on a stunningly lush 14-acre community garden, formed after the Rodney King riots. We see guavas, huge cabbages, plantains, trees that must be 12 or 15 feet tall: an oasis of green amid industrial and residential blight. And then, one day in 2006, land owner Ralph Horowitz announced he would develop the property and threatened to evict the more than 350 families gardening there.

Community needs versus private property rights? Not so simple. As the movie unfolds, gray areas emerge: back-room dealings with City Hall, race-tinged conflicts and disagreements about whether gardens or soccer fields best serve the poor. The nail-biting tale, which was nominated for an Oscar, follows the case until the bulldozers rev their engines, and beyond.

When I saw the movie at E Street Cinemas last weekend, I couldn't help but wonder: Would anything have been different if this had happened in 2009, the year a grow-your-own movement was energized by the planting of a vegetable garden at the White House? The film's short run at E Street is over, but you can order a DVD here.

Via conference call, I spoke with director Kennedy and Rufina Juarez, one of the leaders of South Central Farmers, about the film, the developments since it wrapped and where the farmers' movement stands now. Excerpts:

JY: Given the increased interest in growing food, are you seeing more interest in the film and these issues?

Juarez: Most definitely, especially now that there's a strong push to open community gardens, after the garden opened in Washington by the first lady. It's elevated the need to have more urban garden spaces throughout the nation and as a solution in areas where you don't have access to good food.

Kennedy: As for the film, box office is tough. But in terms of the community that's excited about growing local, eating organic food -- all the things at the core of this garden -- those are the fans seeking this movie out, for sure.

JY: At the end of the movie, it comes across as a bit of a relief to hear that the South Central Farmers have 80 acres out in the country, and are selling at farmers markets in the city. And I see there's even a CSA now. In some ways isn't that even better than the 14 acres you had in the neighborhood?

Juarez: I don't think it's better. The piece that's missing, that's vital, is that urban gardens allow for communities to grow, so there's an exchange. That piece is difficult to get at the farmers market. Providing access to an area that has a need is still an issue.

Kennedy: What they're doing is fantastic, but the hole that they filled for that type of food and community in South Central still needs to be filled. The thing that could make this indeed better would be if they get the land [for the community garden] back, which they're fighting to do.That would be the best-case scenario, that they came full circle.

JY: When I looked up what had gone on since the movie, it was frustrating to see that after all of that heartache and struggle, nothing has been built on the land in three years.

Juarez: Correct. So the urgency of removing people was false. All this hurrying up was not true. There could've been a plan, a transitional plan. There was no need for the excessive abuse of the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department toward people in the community who were only growing plants. And the land is still vacant.

JY: You are fighting the current proposal to develop the land. And the conflicts in the community that were shown in the movie continue. I read that some activists say the warehouse planned for the site would be good because it would provide jobs.

Juarez: At one time, high peak in the summer, 4,000 people would go through the gates of that community garden, and they would definitely have more benefits than the hiring of maybe five people in the warehouse.

Kennedy: People throw down this idea of more jobs. But one of the reason I wanted to make the movie was because people aren't getting all the details. It's great to get past these oversimplifications.

Juarez: We provided so much of a supplement to all the families and the extended families living in the area. It was a safe place where children could play, where elders felt they were being reintroduced to society and their knowledge about working the land was appreciated, and we saw intergenerational connections, a grandfather bringing his grandchildren there to teach them about food. That's worth more than four or five jobs.

JY: Horowitz's refusal to sell to the farmers was a shocking moment in the film. But our reviewer criticized the film for not getting enough of Horowitz's viewpoint in. Do you think you did enough? I'm assuming he wouldn't talk to you for the movie. Do you have a sense of his motivations?

Kennedy: He wouldn't talk to us. I feel like I got as much of his viewpoint in as I possibly could. But the core of the issue is, should the garden stay or should it go? That's the tension in the movie. The reasons for him not doing it? That's a mystery on some levels.

Juarez: I think right now he wishes he would've sold it because prices of land have definitely gone down. But I don't know what his motivations were. I believe that we came to the table, exposed true evidence and still there was an opportunity for somebody to gain monetarily, and leave to the community the land that was given to us after the 1992 uprising. Our need is still there. We still have violence, we still have lack of food, we still have parks that are not safe.

JY: When you look back at it now, would you have done anything differently?

Juarez: I just wish I had had more time, more hours in the day, more hours at night to do the work.

Kennedy: And more time on that land to get up to the level of awareness we have today. As you said when you started the conversation, Joe, more people are aware of these things now. These farmers got beat by the curve as much as anything else.

Juarez: We lost this battle. But we're continuing the war for access to good food. Thinking about how we take care of our land and how we take care of the Earth is something we've been doing for a while. We have to stand up for our responsibilities and be accountable. The South Central Farmers stood up, they were accountable and responsible. It shows the persistence of a community. I hope that's a reflection of how we're all going to participate and take care of our land and our environment in the next generation.

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  |  May 22, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
 | Tags: CSA, Joe Yonan, farmers markets, gardening, movies  
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