A 2009 Academy Award nominee for best documentary, “The Garden” is a powerful cinematic essay focusing in on the political and social battle over the largest community garden in the U.S, a vibrant 14 acre garden, in South Central Los Angeles. The origin of the 14 acres came from a defunct plan to build a municipal incinerator. The city of Los Angeles seized by eminent domain a 14-acre site occupied by warehouses in South Central LA in 1986. The purchase price was $5 million. From the ashes of the 1992 Rodney King riots, arose a lush garden of vegetables, blossoming trees, and fruit orchards offered by the local government as a therapeutic means of healing the wounds from the destruction to their blighted neighborhood. Growing their own food, The Garden created community, an oasis in the midst of grim impoverished circumstances. The gardeners who cultivated little plots of land were mostly Mexican-Americans; some were African-Americans. All of them depended on the produce they grew for their food and as a source of additional income. The garden, above all, became a symbol of hope, their garden of Eden.
But then nothing involving the government is ever that simple. Seventeen years later, the incinerator was never built so the city sold the land back to the original owner. The price was about the same as in 1986. The deal was kept secret – until eviction notices went out in late 2003 to the 347 families who had been using the land for almost two decades. Why was the land sold to a wealthy developer for millions less than fair-market value? Why was the transaction done in a closed-door session of the LA City Council? Why has it never been made public?
In 2004, the gardeners received a notice to vacate, and The Garden captures the resulting two-year court battle and the impending threat of bulldozers ready to plow and level twenty-foot trees to rubble. The Garden follows the plight of the farmers, from the tilled soil to the polished marble of City Hall. Their plight became a celebrated cause–with Darryl Hanna, Danny Glover, Joan Baez, Martin Sheen, other celebrities, and the Annenberg Foundation supporting them.
Juggling politics, race and religion (opposing the gardeners are an African-American activist and a Jewish developer), as well as the rights of property ownership in a free-market society, “The Garden” raises as many questions as it presents possible solutions. When it comes to fighting city hall, nothing is ever simple. “The Garden” is an investigation into a complicated case of backroom dealings, racial tensions and the question of just who represents a community.