The Garden by Scott Hamilton Kennedy
(Black Valley Films)

At Home In Utopia by Michal Goldman
(Filmmakers Collaborative)

Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s The Garden opens with aerial shots of South Central Farm, the 14-acre community garden founded by Latin@ immigrants and other citizens of Los Angeles; against the backdrop of gray warehouses and the L.A. skyline, we see a rectangle of green, bursting with nopales, corn, vegetables, herbs, and trees. South Central Farm has been compared to Eden probably a million times – hell, the allusion is right there in the title of the documentary – but it’s with good reason. To see land being used in a healthy, loving way in an urban environment really does feel like a return to Eden.

By now, the story of South Central Farm is (or should be) legendary among American activists. The land was originally supposed to be used for a garbage incinerator – a move that would be rightly horrifying in wealthy parts of town, but seems to be considered only natural in poor and working class neighborhoods – but, after Concerned Citizens of South Central L.A. successfully fought it, and after the 1992 L.A. Riots galvanized the citizens of South Central to revitalize their community space, it was transformed into a cooperative collection of garden plots. It was more than just a place to grow food; SCF grew into a tight-knit community, a haven amidst the blight of L.A. But racism and greed ensure that good things never last, and SCF was destroyed in 2006.

Although the garden’s demise is largely the fault of coldly efficient systems of oppression, a few specific villains emerge. Most visible among them is Ralph Horowitz, the developer who lost the land to eminent domain but, after it had been given to the farmers, bought it back in a mysterious closed-door deal with the city council. (Notice the interesting semantics that emerge in stories like this – “developing” land denotes building structures, not planting crops, and “development” that benefits a rich white man always takes precedence over other uses. Land use that doesn’t turn a profit isn’t just threatening – it’s downright offensive.) The first half of the film focuses on the court battle to regain control of the garden – a battle that the farmers initially win. Horowitz doesn’t give up, though, and the struggle ultimately culminates in his demand that the farmers raise 16.3 million dollars in five weeks or give up the land.

Amazingly, they raise the money. Despite the unsavoriness of coming up with such a staggering sum just to hand it to an already-wealthy egomaniac, the work the farmers do to secure the funds is awe-inspiring. They hold concerts at the garden; they enlist the local media; they get celebrities like Dennis Kucinich, Deryl Hannah and Joan Baez to endorse them. And although their fundraising doesn’t get them anywhere near their goal, a donor steps in at the last second to supply the rest.

That’s when Horowitz, realizing that they’ve done the impossible, rescinds the offer and orders them to vacate.

The final moments of the film, filled with heart-wrenching images of bulldozers flattening crops and knocking down trees, brought tears to my eyes. The farmers weep and yell from outside their own fences, battered and exhausted from 24-hour vigils and the LAPD’s violent crowd control. They pick remnants of their plants through the chain links. As I watched the bulldozers turn a lush, healthy area into a bare dirt lot (an image I couldn’t help but connect to Palestine), I wondered if this is the way the world will end. If we’ve reached the point where we’re capable of destroying food and habitat without a second thought – that is, if we’ve lost all sense of food and habitat being precious or sacred – then how can we possibly keep ourselves alive?

Other villains seem to emerge in the story, too. Juanita Tate of CCOSCLA, who, after receiving over four million dollars to build a soccer field, produced a dirt lot with goals. City councilwoman Jan Perry and mayor Anthony Villaraigosa, who both waxed eloquent about things like community and sustainability but ultimately helped sell out SCF. But the film doesn’t reduce the conflict to good versus evil. One discomforting thread in the film is the fragmentation within the garden’s ranks, as longtime members are kicked out for breaking the community’s rules. Rufina Juarez and other organizers are presented as immensely likeable and generous people – but are harshly criticized for changing the locks on farmers’ lots during the night. As we see the lines between right and wrong blurring inside of the garden (call it their original sin if you like), we’re forced to wonder to what extent Tate, Perry, Villaraigosa, and even Horowitz believe that they’re
doing the right thing.

**

As a Jew, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Horowitz, easily one of the most detestable figures in Los Angeles, is a member of the tribe. I couldn’t ignore the uncomfortable reality that despite all the work progressive Jews nationwide are doing for social justice, people like him are accepted as the face of Jewishness – both inside and outside of Jewish communities.

But what do we mean when we say “Jewish community?”

At Home in Utopia tells the story of a Jewish community radically – in both senses of the word – different from the synagogues and JCCs most of us now think of as the hubs of Jewish activity. (See also Cole’s review here.) In the 1920s, a group of Yiddish- and Russian-speaking Jewish communists decided to start a housing collective for garment workers in the Bronx. The United Workers Cooperative Colony, or “Coops,” was a cluster of collectively built, owned and governed apartment buildings that boasted free cafeterias and schools, communal gardens, lively social clubs, and large libraries of Yiddish and Russian books. For the residents, the Coops really were a Utopia; former residents in both the film and the audience (I saw a screening at the L.A. Jewish Film Festival) spoke lovingly of the Yiddish culture and spirit of community that flourished at the Coops. This was back before communism was a dirty word. Relief sculptures of hammers and sickles were proudly displayed above each doorway.

As a documentary, At Home in Utopia sometimes drags – partly, I think, because footage from the actual events is limited, so the film relies heavily on visual fillers like photos and panoramas of the buildings today. The story, though, is fascinating. Like South Central Farm, the Coops suffered from internal strife. When Stalin and Hitler signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact in 1939, the Coops residents were forced to choose between “being good communists and being good Jews.” Bitter fights broke out when some members advocated a one dollar rent increase to save their buildings from foreclosure. (One humorous moment emerges from the turmoil: when an English-speaking resident addressed his comrades in Yiddish, he tried to warn them that “Mir veln farlirn undzer hoyzn“* – We will lose our house! But the word he wanted was hoyz, not hoyzn. Everyone at the meeting burst into laughter when he preached to them that they would lose their pants.)

It’s impossible to ignore the parallels between the two films – and it’s significant, perhaps, that they were made in such quick succession. Both movements were faced with police brutality and racism; where The Garden shows a cop sliding plastic handcuffs around the wrists of a Latino, At Home in Utopia shows a Jew being dragged away by the fabric of his coat. The communists endured pre-McCarthy era FBI investigations, while Horowitz castigated the South Central Farmers for not being capitalist enough. The enemies of both communities used divide-and-conquer techniques to weaken them. In both communities, women were leaders. In both communities, marginalized peoples claimed their own space and culture within hostile anti-immigrant environments.

Really, parallels like these are a lesson in learning your history. Young or new activists – and I include myself in this – tend to think that movements start with us. It’s easy to forget that most battles have been fought over and over again, and that most new movements are incarnations of much older ones.

Although both cooperative spaces were, in the end, defeated by the social structures they were rebelling against, they each live on in their way. The Coops are still standing in the Bronx, and current residents, still mostly immigrants, continue to pass under the hammers and sickles on their way home. Although The Garden, in a moment of heartbreaking symmetry, ends with a receding aerial shot of bare dirt, the South Central Farmers now run a farm in Shaster, CA, which sells its produce through farmers’ markets and a CSA. In fact, I’m digesting some SCF-grown kale as I type.

But these films serve as a reminder that despite the mainstream co-op fads that sprout up and then fade, activists working for real alternatives to private property and capitalism have a long way to go. I’m thankful, at least, that we have our elders and ancestors to guide us.

(Cross-posted at Feministe.)
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* I’m transcribing the line from memory, so the Yiddish may not be completely accurate.