Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Backroom Deals

I have to open with a SPOILER ALERT. I want to discuss in this entry a documentary and a play I saw last weekend, both of which took up pretty much the same issue in more or less the same way. The bad guys are developers and the good guys are folks using property -- in the form of a community garden and a historic property-- that may be taken away due to a backroom deal. And I just can't figure out a way to do it without giving away the ending. The Garden, a documentary about a community garden in South Central Los Angeles, is worth watching whether you know the ending or not, but a lot of what keeps you watching is wondering whether the group of Latinos who have been gardening the 14-acre site for 12 years are going to get to keep it. So if you don't want to know, don't read this review. Radio Golf by August Wilson, which we saw last Sunday at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, is about whether or not an African American developer with a good heart and hopes for his community will in the end do the right thing by a homeowner on the lots he has to develop. I'm also going to say here what he does in the end. If you just want to read my review of the play with the ending revealed, click here.

OK. I literally saw the documentary on Friday night and attended the play on Sunday afternoon, which intensified my connection with this basic story. In the case of The Garden, the story of the land went this way. The city of Los Angeles claimed the 14-acre plot through eminent domain to build a trash incinerator on after the 1992 riots. They paid $5 million for it to the owner, g A local activist led a successful campaign to stop the incinerator, and a local woman worked with the city to turn the plot into a community garden. A community of Latinos reclaimed the land from concrete and farmed plots for 12 years, turning the acreage into an oasis of green and of food, including papaya trees. It was an amazing place. They didn't sell the food, but consumed it within their community of families.

Then one day they arrived to find a sign saying the land had been purchased and the garden would be removed in three months. This time it is the community that mobilizes, eventually getting assistance from some social justice lawyers. The lawyers probe how the land was sold, and it turns out it was sold to the original owner, a developer, for the same price the city bought it for 12 years before-- with no public posting, no chance for the gardeners to bid on it, etc. Involved in the deal was his promise to turn part of the lot into a community soccer field (a project of the local councilwoman and the aforementioned activist).

Before you know it, Darryl Hannah and Danny Glover are involved, and a councilman who is interested in saving the garden has become mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. Through pressure, the developer says he will sell the property to the gardeners if they can raise his asking price: $16 million. There's a high-profile concert fundraiser and more celebrity visits. In the end, they raise an impressive half million. Then the Annanberg Foundation steps in and agrees to provide all the rest-- and together they make the offer of $16 million.

And that's when the astonishing thing happens. The developer turns it down. He sends bulldozers instead and in a horrifying scene, with riot police surrounding the plot and dragging off gardeners, they flatten the garden. The voice over is of the developer saying he wouldn't sell it to that group for any amount of money. They seemed to feel they were entitled to it, and didn't recognize the rights of the owner. He didn't like them and didn't like the way they were acting. Who did they think they were? He owned the property and could do with it what he wanted. And he wanted to build warehouses there. As of 2008, two years later, not a thing had happened on the lot. The gardeners were able to buy 80 acres in Bakersfield, where they garden (I have no idea how they get there and back) and market their produce at farmer's markets, including the one in Los Angeles. They also got a plot of land under some high voltage wires, and some concluding footage shows them working to get the concrete slabs out of it and bring in dirt so they can start over.

Radio Golf, the last play in his decalogue portraying African American life in each decade of the 20th century, was really delightful. What I liked about it was that the main character, Harmond Wilks, has a very clear conflict. He is the son of a rather ruthless real estate agent, and is running for mayor of Pittsburgh while running a "redevelopment" company. His goal is to gentrify the Hill District, and he has bought a property and already signed on Starbucks, Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble for the ground floor retail of an apartment and medical complex. The problem arises when a wise but somewhat derelict man wanders in claiming to own a home on the property. The home is slated for demolition. In defending his title to the land, Harmond realizes that it is "one of the properties" he was able to buy before it went to public auction, so was not listed in the paper. He didn't follow the rules.

Harmond redevelops his redevelopment plan to fit into the larger complex, and defends the importance of the house-- and of fairness in not taking advantage of his backroom deal. But his wife and business partner are in touch with the major businesses, whose contracts are contingent on the original plan. Nobody wants a "raggedy old house" in the middle of a new development. In the end, Harmond holds his ground and his partner gets rid of him-- a sort of hostile takeover-- and moves forward with the bulldozing. There is some good theatrical symbolism, as first one of the advocates for the house, and then Harmond, paint their faces with red house paint as if they are Indians. All I could think of was, "THE INDIANS ALWAYS LOSE!" I've been reading about the Mandan Indians of North Dakota as well, in Sister Mara Faulkner's memoir Going Blind, and it's the same story-- cash for complete loss of land and livelihood, and no real choice. The writing seems to be on the wall for me when they choose to be Indians. The odds are on the cowboys.

The odds are on the developers, the ones with the power, even if they got it through backroom deals. I was kind of shocked in both cases that the corruption won out, though in both cases it did not need to. And in both cases it came down to individual greed and ego, and a lack of commitment to the common good.

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