By Chris Richard
Residents of a South Los Angeles neighborhood and activists from throughout Southern California engaged in an act of civil disobedience three months ago: They planted tomatoes, corn, chilis, marigolds and other plants in curbside gardens along a whole block of 58th Street in Los Angeles.
At the time, the city required the area between a sidewalk and the curb to be “free of obstruction,” including vegetable plots.
But health activists and South Los Angeles residents said such gardens provided needed fresh produce. Citations issued to a handful of curbside revolutionaries elsewhere in the city drew widespread criticism, and, days after the 58th Street insurrection, the City Council voted to suspend enforcement of the law.
In October, the Council dropped the prohibition altogether. Now the 58th Street gardeners are on the march, hoping to spread vegetable plots for block upon block.
The goal, said Michelle Kennedy of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, is to plant not just vegetables, but a sense of community.
“The change in the law makes it easier to start to build community in neighborhoods without having to worry about running afoul of city ordinances, so that definitely a plus,” she said.
“We think of things like these gardening projects as a way for neighbors to start to get to know each other, to start to build some ownership in their neighborhoods and start to realize they can make changes, even if it’s something like gardening in a parkway, that lead to bigger things.”
Neighborhood resident Teodora Flores, planting a new garden box along her curb, said she can see that idea at work already.
“One garden inspires the neighbors to improve the neighborhood, and it goes from there,” she said. “Also, it’s nice to have something to eat from these little plants.”
When Melissa Chadburn of the Magnolia Community Initiative worked on the planting project in August, she invited two neighborhood girls to join in and also took them out for lunch. One told her that she’d never before tasted a tomato.
Later, Chadburn saw the girl planting a tomato in front of her own house. She said it’s important to a child’s upbringing to understand the connection between plants and food.
“I think gardening could build empathy, actually tending to something, seeing it grow, understanding it as a living thing,” she said.
“To see that you could have something, a realistic palpable thing outside of your house, to see that the community cares about your neighborhood and you yourself have something to care for, I think that’s the first step, absolutely.”
City Councilman Curren Price, who represents the area, said he hopes the idea catches on more broadly.
“This is an important initiative from a community organizing point of view, from a healthy foods point of view, from a beautifying our neighborhoods point of view,” he said.
Likewise, City Council President Herb Wesson, who championed proposals to revise and then drop the gardening prohibition, has asked for a report on surplus city land that might be used for community gardens, Wesson spokesman Edward Johnson said.
Still, Lisa Hubbard of St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, which is on 58th Street and which helped organize both planting sessions, thinks the friction with Los Angeles’ city government may not be over. The area’s land is so poor that gardens require planting in boxes filled with topsoil, structures that still aren’t approved for curbside use, Hubbard said.
“We support whatever anybody wants to do to plant and seed the land to grow what they need to grow, and it will be an ongoing wrangle with city bureaucrats, leaders and others to determine how best to do this,” she said.