One of the most touching projects I’ve done in the last 89 volunteer missions was the day I worked with LA Green Grounds. In April we planted a garden in the food dessert that is South Central Los Angeles. Angel Tenger and her family allowed LAGG to plant the garden in her yard and the parkways (area in between the sidewalk and street) lining the property.
In late July the 8th District of LA slapped Tenger with a notice to pull up the garden in parkways in 48 hours or else. I contacted Angel for her side of the story.
Tell me about the moment you got the notice from the city…
It was a very upsetting experience. It was Monday, July 22nd and my son and I had just gotten into my car to run some errands. I started my car and was about to pull out into the street when I heard excessive and aggressive honking right behind me. I looked out my driver’s side window and there was a man standing there, with no badge or uniform to identify him as a city employee. He said “I need to talk to you about your garden.”
I wasn’t sure what was going on. He said that his supervisor had called him over the weekend, specifically about my garden. He even made a point of identifying other planting violations within eyesight of our corner, but said that it was our garden that was a problem. He told me I had 48 hours to pull everything out of the parkways. When I told him that was impossible – my husband works during the day and it’s just me at home, there’s no way I could do all of that in 48 hours, he said he didn’t care who did it, that it had to be done, and if I didn’t take care of it he would come back and take care of it himself.
What were you growing in this problematic garden?
We’ve harvested chard, kale, eggplant, yellow squash, zucchini, mustard greens, string beans, honeydew melon, chili pepper, banana pepper, bell pepper, cucumber, tomatoes, bok choy¸ nectarines and strawberries. The cantaloupe will be ready any day now.
So the city wanted you to pull up a food-producing garden. What was the condition of your yard before the LA Green Grounds event in April?
Our property sat vacant for over a year before we bought it. The land hadn’t been cared for in so long, it was hard as rock and overgrown with weeds. People would leave their trash on the parkways – fast food containers, beer bottles, dog poop. It was awful.
What did your neighbors think of this rouge garden and city violation?
The response from the neighborhood has been overwhelmingly positive. It started on our dig-in day, with neighbors coming by to show their support – donating food to our volunteers, dropping off bottled water, and even grabbing shovels and digging in right there with us.
Since we planted it (almost four months ago), we’ve met so many of our neighbors. Some make a point of taking their daily walks past our house so they can see how things are growing. A lot of the neighborhood kids come by and pick strawberries or take zucchini, squash, cucumbers or tomatoes back home for their families.
Every day that we are out in the garden – without exception – someone stops to tell us how much they love the garden, or how they want to do the same. It’s been a wonderful way to connect with people. After all, it’s food we’re growing out there – the most basic of human needs. It makes sense that an edible garden would bring us together and grow community.
A fast growing protest started on Facebook when Angel reported her community created garden was being threatened.
The LA City Council, without explanation, backed down from its demand that the garden be pulled up.
Why do you think they really backed down from pulling up the parkway?
I’m not really sure. I don’t know why they had such a problem with it to begin with and I don’t know why they backed off. But, I think that support for parkway gardens like ours and the urban agriculture movement in general has grown tremendously. (A shout out here for Ron Finley and his TED talk which is what inspired me to get involved with LA Green Grounds and made this garden a reality.)
After we received the violation, Ron started a Facebook campaign urging supporters to contact Bernard Parks, the Councilman for my neighborhood, and ask him to save our garden. I know that made an impact because Councilman Parks’ office immediately came out to my home and got involved. Then Steve Lopez’s article came out in the LA Times, drawing attention to the fact that the Herb Wesson, City Council President, had vowed to change the laws to allow for parkway gardens TWO YEARS AGO and nothing had changed.
What can we do now to bring food justice to LA and the rest of the country?
A simple step is for the [Los Angeles] City Council to update the parkway planting guidelines to allow for fruits and vegetables. But, after two years, they’ve been unable to follow through.
The City of LA has a really wonderful opportunity here to promote better health and nutrition for its residents by allowing us to grow food and build community in areas that really don’t have access to good food options. South LA doesn’t have to be a food desert. We can change that.
Our little garden has come to symbolize a movement that the City of LA should embrace – growing your own food to take control of your diet and health; building strong communities in which neighbors look out for one another and share resources; reconnecting with nature and taking care of our own little piece of the planet while we’re lucky enough to be on it. These are all good things that are worth fighting for, but we shouldn’t need to fight.
What happened to Angel is not unusual.
But just like in Angel’s case, city and governments can always be pushed by the people.
Food Justice For Everyone