Los Angeles: Joan Baez, 40 years on & still singing for justice Print E-mail

 Thursday May 25, 2006

Celebrities Crop Up at Farm Protest

In a tree, a tent or before microphones, stars show up to support the fight to halt development of a South L.A. parcel used as a community garden.
By Hector Becerra, Times Staff Writer

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Joan Baez grabbed a rope and was hoisted 50 feet up an old walnut tree for the first day of her tree-sitting protest, serenading a contingent of reporters Wednesday with folk songs.

Rock star Ben Harper gave an impassioned speech, with his wife, actress Laura Dern, looking on supportively.

Actress Daryl Hannah emerged from a green tent she is calling home, saying she passes the time at night by strumming chords on her miniature guitar.

Hollywood has come to South Los Angeles in a last-ditch effort to save a community farm that is slated for development.

Their legal options exhausted and fundraising efforts stymied, the 350 farm users who for several years have been trying to preserve a 14-acre urban oasis did that very Hollywood thing: They appealed to celebrities for help.

The scene Wednesday had the feel of a 1960s concert that Baez might have headlined, with ponytailed environmental activists grooving to her songs. They mingled with the mostly Latino immigrants who tend small plots of vegetables, herbs, fruit trees and cactus, a popular Central American food.

It's far from certain that the celebrities can save the farm, which came to life after the 1992 riots when the city leased the land to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

Ralph Horowitz bought the land from the city in 2003 and in recent months has been trying to sell it off for development.

A nonprofit group tried to buy the land and preserve the farm, but it announced last week that it was $10 million short of Horowitz's $16.3-million asking price.

Some in the community support him, arguing that the area would benefit from the jobs that would come if the land at Alameda and 41st streets were developed.

Still, the injection of celebrity has brought new interest from the media and surrounding community to the preservation effort, which seemed to be flagging in recent weeks.

Using a microphone sent up to her makeshift treehouse, Baez told reporters and activists that she felt a strong affinity for the immigrants who use the land to grow food, saying it reminded her of her father's roots in Mexico.

"Although I don't speak Spanish, I saw my people and my ancestors here in the cactus and in the … medicinal plants as I was shown around," said Baez, who began her tree-sitting vigil Tuesday night. "I was astounded and I was moved, and I associated very strongly with the brown-skinned people here."

Although community activists have vowed to create tent cities and chain themselves to trees, Baez said she's not sure how long her tree-sitting will continue.

After speaking about the importance of the farm Wednesday, she broke into song.

No nos moverán, como un árbol firme junto al rio. We will not be moved, like a firm tree next to the river.

A TV reporter turned and smiled, saying: "That's what we were waiting for."

Baez is sharing the platform with two veteran tree sitters: Julia "Butterfly" Hill, who gained fame for sitting in a giant Northern California redwood for two years, and John Quigley, who spent 71 days in a tree in the Santa Clarita Valley in 2002 trying to prevent its removal.

Hill became involved in the farm fight a year ago after touring the lot. And when it became clear that activists could not raise the money needed to buy it, she turned to her Hollywood Rolodex.

Hill said she asked several celebrity environmentalists to take up the cause, including Harper, Baez, Hannah and Dern.

"Julia Butterfly told me about the farm a few weeks ago and I was shocked," Hannah said. "I didn't know there was a farm in South-Central L.A."

Hannah pitched her tent Monday and urged friends to join her. She said she would stay "however long it takes, I guess."

Wearing bluejeans and a plaid shirt, cellphone never far from her ear, Hannah said she participated in a candlelight march around the farm that included Korean and South American musical groups.

"I slept like a rock, which is surprising, considering the trains go by every 15 minutes and make this racket and there's helicopters going over," Hannah said. "I slept really well, and I felt really safe."

Singer-songwriter Harper argued that the farm's fate should not come down to money.

"If it's only a matter of money, money can be raised over time," Harper said as Dern and Hannah posed for pictures.

But the issue largely is about money.

Horowitz could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But in several recent interviews with The Times, he said he has been unfairly tarred as a villain for wanting to sell the land for development.

It's unclear what would be built there, but the land is zoned for commercial and industrial use.

The farmers and activists who remain on the land are essentially squatters who have refused to leave, Horowitz said, likening them to "someone moving into your parents' backyard and pitching a tent and saying, 'Look, we are going to stay here.' "

The site has a contentious history. The city acquired the land from Horowitz through eminent domain in the 1980s for a planned trash incinerator, but the project was stopped by neighborhood opposition.

After the 1992 riots, the city leased the land to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which began the community garden. In 2003, the city sold the land back to Horowitz for about $5 million.

But the farmers did not leave and in the last three years ­ and particularly in recent weeks ­ have frequently pleaded to stay.

The nonprofit Trust for Public Land said it would try to acquire 10 acres on the site from Horowitz, but last week said it was $10 million short of the goal.

None of the celebrities offered a concrete plan for raising the needed money. Harper urged city leaders to come up with a solution.

"I don't mean to oversimplify the process, but … there are creative ways to come up with it," he said, suggesting that residents throughout Los Angeles make small contributions. Just a few dollars, he said, could save the farm.

Hannah was more blunt, calling the standoff "a situation of the needy versus the greedy."

Some of the farmers said they had never heard of Hannah, Baez, Dern and the rest of their new allies as they surveyed the curious scene.

Claudia Vasquez, 30, has been cultivating a plot at the farm for four years. Though the celebrities were not familiar faces to her, she said she appreciated the support.

"They're part of the family," she said.