Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Garden DVD

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: It’s Latinos vs. Landlord in Academy Award-Nominated Documentary

In 1986, Ralph Horowitz sold a vacant, 14-acre lot of land he owned to the City of Los Angeles for $5 million. The property was located in an abandoned industrial area at the corner of 41st and Alameda which most people considered an ugly example of urban blight.
Since the empty plot bordered the barrio in South Central, in 1992, Latinos living there started toying with the idea of turning it into productive farmland. So, they created a collaborative which carted in tons of topsoil to cover up the barren blacktop. Next, they divvied it up with the understanding that each of the 372 families participating could cultivate crops for their own consumption, but not for profit.
Lo and behold, the former dumping ground soon blossomed into an abundant oasis that not only the locals, but even politicians like City Councilman (soon to be Mayor) Antonio Villaraigosa proudly pointed to as a novel form of urban renewal. But this modest Latino version of the American Dream morphed into a horrible nightmare when Mr. Horowitz resurfaced, ordering all the squatters to vacate.
It seems that Horowitz had somehow finagled a sweetheart deal and bought his own real estate back from the city at the same price he had sold it for, even thought its value had appreciated by $10 to $15 million in the interim. Why had L.A. handed the property over to the landlord at a bargain basement price, especially when he just wanted to bulldoze the verdant grove growing everything from corn stalks to bananas to guava and apple trees.
The ensuing legal battle is the subject of The Garden, a heartbreaking documentary directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy. The movie landed a well-deserved Oscar-nomination earlier this year for its touching portrayal of Spanish-speaking salt-of-the-earth who find it hard to fathom that the legal system could possibly side with a crook out to flatten the fruit of their blood, sweat and tears.
There’s a helpless feeling watching these undereducated, unconnected immigrants pool their money and stage fundraisers to be able to offer Mr. Horowitz triple the amount he paid for the land if he’d sell it to their block association. But no, he simply waits for the judge’s jaw-dropping decision, and in 2004 he wins the eviction case before gleefully flattening the entire farm out of spite. To this day, he still hasn’t developed the real estate, since he ostensibly would rather leave it as is and rub the empty eyesore in the eyes of the Latino community.
I only pray there’s a special room in Hell waiting for a heartless creep like Horowitz.

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 80 minutes
Studio: Oscilloscope Pictures

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