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For those of us living in our modern cities land is a foreign concept. Stories of land conjure romantic images of countrysides far from our crowded neighborhoods, images that seem irrelevant to our lives. Even though we inhabit a landscape smothered with buildings and concrete, the struggles for land fought by rural people hold many important lessons for us as we strive for control over our lives and communities. When we consider the landless state of most poor people the world round and how most of us own no land, we realize we are all perpetually inhabiting someone else’s space. Our lives and communities as well as our food supply are controlled by people in far away places whose main motivation is profit. When we start to reclaim some of this space we begin to take back our lives.
Managed by hired agencies and city employees, our streets and parks feel like they belong to no one. In reality this is the common land that we all share and it has the potential to change our lives and the ways that we relate to the space around us. When a group of gardeners in San Francisco turned an abandoned lot near my house into a guerrilla community garden this spring, it transformed our street full of strangers into a community with the common goal of improving the neighborhood. All over the world landless people have made bold stands to control unused land and challenge the very notion of land ownership. The struggle for land is as old as the concept of private property. In 1649 a group of landless English peasants called the Diggers seized common land to start self-supporting communes. This was a direct response to the soaring price of food. They set up collectives based on anarchist principles and planted fields of vegetables and grains. The Diggers started a nationwide peasant revolt and inspired others to reclaim similar pieces of land. Despite their eventual defeat by thugs hired by wealthy landowners, the Diggers provided a basis for many land struggles in Europe and the US. The Great Depression in the United States saw a huge migration of people newly run off their land and desperate to find work. Throughout Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle entire communities were displaced as agribusiness took advantage of bad crop years and poor environmental conditions. Many of these people had been poor for generations but still maintained control over their lives as long as they had land. Once they were forced off their farms, people migrated by the thousands to California in hope of finding a small farm to resettle on and begin their lives once more. But what people found was that the dream of owning land in this new place was just that: a dream. With no way to provide for their basic needs, people were forced to sell their labor at the ever-dropping going rate. Angered by the unequal distribution of wealth and power, people got together and gardened on neglected tracts of land. These were people who understood how to grow their own food as well as their inalienable right to cultivate the ground around them. Recently we have seen greater recognition of the role of land to alleviate poverty. Last year Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, passed a law calling for sweeping land reform. Most Bolivians own no land and live in the resulting state of poverty. Recognizing this, the new law intends to “expropriate unproductive land, which serves no social or economic function” and give it to those without land (BBC News). Since last year the Bolivian government has distributed 9,600 square miles of state-owned land to peasant communities. Soon afterward the program was expanded to reclaim private land. Morales’ “agrarian revolution” is well under way. “It is not possible, my friends, to have so much land in so few hands, and so many hands without land,” says the leader of the poorest nation in South America. But of course not all governments are supportive of people’s efforts to grow their own food. In the wake of the 1992 South Central Riots in Los Angeles, the city diverted a 14-acre piece of land in the neighborhood from its intended purpose as a trash incinerator and turned it into a community garden. The South Central Farm blossomed, becoming the country’s largest urban farm and supporting more than 350 families in an otherwise industrial area. Ten years later, as the garden thrived, the city government allowed the former landowner to retake his property. When the owner announced his plan to bulldoze the garden to make way for an industrial warehouse, gardeners organized to protect the farm. Supporters protested outside the gates last year as others occupied the garden. More than fifty people were forcefully arrested and removed from the land. The property owner sent in teams of Bobcat tractors last June and leveled the fruit orchards and vegetable gardens, making clear the imbalance of power and land distribution. The wishes of one person, whose sole motivation from the land is profit, were given priority over the health and livelihood of an entire community. People attempting to stop the destruction of the garden were questioning none other that the sanctity of private property and in turn the central tenets on which our society is based. This is what needs to happen if we are ever going to take control of our urban communities. One of the central problems that our cities face is the pervasive notion that we cannot affect the space around us. Whether that means cleaning up a park, painting a mural, or planting a garden, most of us don’t feel empowered to take such bold steps. The protest in LA, like countless others, was about redefining what ownership means. These questions are as relevant in my neighborhood as in South Central Los Angeles. In the Inner Richmond of San Francisco, sitting right across the street from Golden Gate Park, is an overgrown, vacant lot. For decades this lot at the corner of Fulton and Stanyan grew nothing but weeds and trash. In January, a group of friends and neighbors came together to reclaim this piece of land. We planted vegetables and flowers and soon the neglected lot started to feel more like a community commons. On workdays people from the neighborhood would dig in and get to know each other. Our street began to feel like a real neighborhood. A few months later the landlady, Aileen O’Driscoll, caught wind of the garden from her remote outpost in Hawaii. Instead of praising our motivation to clean up the mess she had left on our block, she ordered us off the land. We tried to address her concerns about the garden even though our only contact with her was through her hired agency, Citywide Property Management. Citywide had no idea how to deal with us. They couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t just rip up our plants and leave. We went to work organizing our neighborhood. Most neighbors were in support of the garden—everyone was sick of seeing that land strewn with trash. Whether they thought we had any right to be there or not everyone had to agree that we had improved the land. Going door to door and talking with every person on the street was a great catalyst for forming community. Despite the public pressure from neighbors, garden organizations, and even city representatives, O’Driscoll would not negotiate. On the morning of the slated destruction we started an occupation of the garden. About 25 people got together waving signs, playing music and sending the message that we won’t let this garden go. Friends and neighbors brought us food and water and at times the protest felt like a block party. After five days of occupation it seemed that Citywide had given up its plans to level the garden. For three weeks we celebrated quietly. Everyday the plants remained was another victory. I breathed a sigh of relief and transplanted rows of chard. But then one Monday in April I received a call from an elderly neighbor saying the garden was under attack. She told me how she had tried to save the garden but was chased off by angry men telling her “they had their orders.” By the time I arrived the Earth was once again bare: all of our food plants had been removed. Our rows of fava beans and lettuce were ripped up. To pour a little salt in our wounds the “clean up crew” had left O’Driscoll’s other vacant lot right across the street overgrown with poison hemlock and littered with broken bottles. It was clear this was no battle over the aesthetics of the lot, there was no issue with our garden looking messy. The message was obvious: this is not your land, this is not where food comes from. This garden, and others like it, highlight what is possible when neighbors come together to transform their home. Despite the eventual destruction of our plants we were able to build a community on our block. In addition the garden raised some important questions for us to consider: Who gets to control space in our neighborhood? Is it an absentee landlord who may never step foot on this piece of land or the people who live here and want to create a safer and more beautiful neighborhood for all of us to enjoy? We need to show people everywhere that they can take control of unused land and create beautiful space for their communities to enjoy. We need to redefine the very notion of land ownership. Those who live on the land, utilizing it to grow food and support themselves, have a claim over the land. Widespread land occupations are possible and a neighborhood garden is only the beginning.
A different version of this article appears in Fault Lines #21. This is the final version.