Ecohustle Blooms in Community Garden

“Whether politicizing nature is altogether wise is something we shall learn.”

— W.H. Auden

I first saw Joan Baez sitting on the floor of a farmhouse living room near my high school, and she was playing guitar and singing like an angel. Her black hair, “like a raven’s wing,” hung to her waist. There was something superhumanly beautiful about the song, the girl, that time, the place — that I have never lost.

I’ve never again seen her in person. But in the media over the years, I saw her everywhere: in civil rights demonstrations, protesting the Vietnam War. Wherever there was injustice, she was there. A grown woman now, shorn, but still an angel.

Last week, I saw her on the front of The Times in a tree near the Alameda Corridor, and the spell was finally broken.

Joan, on this one, you’re wasting yourself.

The matter at issue is a community farm in South Central Los Angeles that has sprung up on 14.3 acres that do not belong to the farmers. The land belongs to Ralph Horowitz, who says he wishes to build a warehouse or to sell the land at something close to its market value.

Horowitz, it turns out, is no match for the South Central Farmers’ PR firestorm, which has struck again and again. First, musician Zack de la Rocha, then tree-sitters Julia Butterfly Hill and John Quigley, plus actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Daryl Hannah and now Joan — who was as beautiful as ever in that old walnut tree.

I’m not sure I want to blame Joan for this, but she’s symbolic of a circus that had been, a couple of years ago, a sincere cause. It’s now a media show, an ecohustle: In the one corner, an “evil Beverly Hills landlord.” In the other, various celebrities and now a folk icon standing tall on the loam tended by hundreds of pairs of humble hands.

The climax was set to go down last week, when a civil court judge signed off on an eviction order. There ensued high-pitched press conferences, vigil invitations and e-mail blasts proclaiming doom. But at this writing, authorities have not taken action.

What didn’t seem to get mentioned was that these farmers have no more legal right to be on the 14.3 acres belonging to Horowitz than they would on your land — if they suddenly decided to occupy your front lawn and set up farming there.

I didn’t mean to be that blunt. I was one of the first to report on the garden. It is beautiful, so are the gardeners. But their cause has somehow become a rigid ideal, resistant to compromise and particularly to reality. I mean, what does Hannah really have to do with growing nopales near Avalon Boulevard?

Or what does this garden have to do with the fall of the great Maya and Aztec civilizations that never reached, let’s face it, Ensenada, let alone South Central? I don’t know, but they’re being evoked to justify the gardeners working Horowitz’s land, as is the gardening families’ allegedly desperate need for healthy nutrition — as though scurvy were endemic in South Los Angeles.

Also invoked is the issue of “ecological sustainability and community self-reliance,” as Green Party chief Michael Feinstein put it. But then, most of the farmers aren’t from the local community and the “self-reliance” involves refusing to get off someone else’s property.

Not that this sort of occupation doesn’t have a role in modern society. In Buenos Aires, former employees now run the huge Bauen Hotel, which they took over as a derelict abandoned by the original proprietors in Argentina’s turn-of-the-century economic meltdown. A little earlier, in the 1990s, in Erfurt, Germany, squatters took over the bankrupt Topf & Sohne iron works, which built the Auschwitz crematoria, putting up displays elucidating the ghastly history that had been ignored by both the East and West German governments. The difference here is, and it’s a big one, this land is not abandoned. It belongs to someone whose right to his property is valid — whether we like him or not.

Just like the rest us, developers can be run over by buses, catch double pneumonia or have their property taken at rock-bottom prices by eminent domain. This is what happened to Horowitz 20 years ago.

Horowitz (like the self-proclaimed garden spokesman who calls himself Tezozomoc) didn’t return my e-mails. So I don’t know how crucial this acreage is to his investment portfolio or his kids’ college education. But regardless, he’s been treated unfairly. The city of L.A. played three-card-monte with the property for 14 years after failing to use the land for the stated “public need,” a trash-to-energy incinerator.

Horowitz finally had to bring suit to get it back at the price he was paid for it. Now he finds his land requisitioned by busy agriculturists said to be nicer than he is. Does one have to be a fellow property owner to feel for someone who landed on the wrong side of the visionary hedge? Had Wal-Mart grabbed this land instead of the gardeners, all these ecohustlers might be out there holding vigils for Horowitz.

But it’s the city that is really responsible for this mess. It’s not clear to what extent Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa fluffed a transaction that would have had the city pay half of an $11 million purchase of the land in partnership with a private foundation. What’s clear is that the city’s showed poor leadership all the way here by not seeking the best solution for everyone involved: This deal would and should include a fair price for Horowitz and offer those who actually live near the gardens their own share of this precious green space — as parkland and ball fields and perhaps low-cost housing.

In other words, the gardeners should expect that they’ll have smaller personal gardens if they really want public money to be part of their rescue.

Mayor Villaraigosa has advanced the lame argument that Horowitz, after being a victim of city shenanigans for years, should, in effect, donate his valuable land for nothing more than the price it was worth two decades ago.

The mayor could better spend his verbiage forging a more reasonable arrangement. If he can’t — and the gardeners won’t — compromise, the city might as well save its money and let Horowitz build his warehouse.

Marc B. Haefele is news editor of the Los Angeles Alternative Press and comments on local government for KPCC-FM.