Entrepreneurial urban politics and urban social movements in Los Angeles

The struggle for urban farmland in South Central

9 October 2006
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So-called "entrepreneurial urban policy" ostensibly deals with the local consequences of structural transformation on the national and global scale. However, writes Henrik Lebuhn, it plays major role in producing and reproducing precisely the conditions it seeks to redress. The community garden campaign in South Central L.A. is a local movement that resists the vested interests behind local government and planning.


“Entrepreneurial urban politics” have a long history in the United States. As Dennis Judd and Todd Swanstrom point out in their book about “City Politics”, cities in the United States have always been “places of economic opportunity”.1 With the recent shift from a Fordist to a post-Fordist economy, and the rise of neoliberal policy regimes, entrepreneurial urban politics have become even more crucial. Not only for cities in the US, but also for cities in most other western democracies.2

© Leopoldo Peña, www.leopoldopena.com

David Harvey has been very influential in shaping this concept. It refers to an urban agenda, in which “traditional local boosterism is integrated with the use of local governmental powers to try and attract external sources of funding, new direct investment, or new employment sources.”3 In a very general way we can state that every capitalist city depends on successful capital accumulation. More specifically, current entrepreneurial urban politics can be described as a strategy to deal with the local consequences of the structural transformations on a national and global scale: increasing regional and global economic competition, the loss of industrial employment, and federal budget cutbacks for urban programmes and social services. Far from solving these challenges, entrepreneurial urban politics play an important role in producing and re-producing the vicious circle they are struggling with. Even if cities successfully master the pressure of regional and global competition, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this pays off. At least not, if we look at ‘the city’ from a perspective of how liveable it actually is for the majority of its inhabitants. As scholars like Saskia Sassen have pointed out, successful global cities produce particular local conflicts:4 many entrepreneurial cities struggle with severe financial crisis due to giant direct and indirect business subsidies and lack of tax revenues; they have to deal with severe social polarization, segregation and inequality; and they face dramatic social and social-spatial conflicts, especially in their marginalized neighbourhoods.

While we do have some knowledge about how entrepreneurial city politics work, it seems that a lot less attention has been given to contemporary local protests, networks, and movements that resist these politics and call for political change.5 The “insurgent civil society […] has been mostly unnoticed”, as Roger Keil puts it.6 In this sense I’d like to take a look at a local conflict in Los Angeles that I am currently working on: the struggle for urban farmland in South Central. I will first give a brief sketch of the conflict.

Second, I will discuss some aspects of the entrepreneurial politics that have led to this conflict. Third, I will take a closer look at the South Central Farmers. And fourth, I will close with a couple of more general observations, and make a brief remark on the political perspective of the struggle for land in South Central.

The Struggle for Urban Farmland in South Central L.A.

With its 14 acre size, the South Central Gardens are probably the largest community garden in the United States, located on Alameda Street and 41st Street, right on the border between the district of South Central and the city of Vernon.7 In the mid-1980s, the City of Los Angeles was planning a massive trash incinerator project, known as LANCER. The first incinerator was to be built in South Central. Searching for a site, the city took a 14-acre property on Alameda Street by eminent domain and paid the owner Ralph Horowitz $4.7 million. However the incinerator was never built. Massive environmental protests forced the mayor, Tom Bradley, to pull the plug on LANCER. Instead, the property in South Central was abandoned.8

© Leopoldo Peña, www.leopoldopena.com

The story continues in 1992. After the uprisings in Los Angeles, the so-called Rodney King riots,9 the city government was desperately looking into possibilities for social programs in marginalized neighbourhoods, especially in South Central. The riots had “indicated that life in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods had become intolerable”.10 When city officials approached the Regional Foodbank, located right across the street from the original LANCER site, the Foodbank suggested making the land available for low-income families to farm on it.

“After the uprising in 1992, after the Rodney King verdict, some people in city hall thought that this land should be used to benefit the people of South Central, Los Angeles. And the idea that they came up with was to turn it into a community garden. In 1992, coming from Tom Bradley¹s office, it was turned over to various people to farm on individual plots.” Starting in 1992, families from South Central and other neighbourhoods cleaned the trash up, divided the property into plots, and started to grow fruits and vegetables. The Foodbank officially administered the land, but in fact, this really was a grassroots project. Since the mid-1990s, 350 low-income families, mostly migrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, many of them undocumented, are farming the land. The campesinos can easily cover about one third of their food demand through the gardens. A preliminary survey, conducted in summer 2005 by Prof. Devon G. Peña, University of Washington, identified 35 species in the gardens, “each with a multitude of medicinal or nutritional uses”. The study estimates that another “100-150 species across row crops, trees, shrubs, vines, cacti, and herbaceous plants” can be found in the gardens.11 On weekends, neighbours and friends stop by to trade, sell and give away fruits, vegetables and herbs. In places like Vernon or South Central, where the average family income amounts to about 1500 dollars per month,12 this form of solidarity economy makes a huge difference for everyone. But the gardens are located on the so-called Alameda Corridor, an area that is mostly commercial. For many years, the corridor has been an important transportation link to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In 1997, the city began constructions for a US$ 2.4 billion rail expressway that runs about 20 miles from the ports through eight cities to downtown Los Angeles, where it connects to transcontinental rail lines. This obviously gives any property along the Alameda Corridor a strategic value for trade related investment. No surprise that the original owner of the property started to pressure the city to sell him the land back. In 2003 he cut a deal with city hall, and bought the land back for US$ 5 million in order to develop it. Negotiations took place behind closed doors, and generous donations were made to city hall members – something very typical for the neoliberal privatization of public space and public goods.13 “That’s how things happen a lot of times with big land deals”, Robert Gottlieb, Professor at Occidental College, reminded me during an interview.

In 2003, conflict broke out over the farmland: the farmers were served an eviction note but refused to leave the gardens. Instead they filed a lawsuit against the city to win time for a campaign.14 Although they lost the lawsuit, they managed to build an impressive coalition to defend the gardens. In spring 2006 the farmers are still on the property. Dozens of local and regional grassroots groups support the farmers. The conflict has been drawing lots of media attention, even on the international level. An eviction can take place any day, but it would cause a tremendous public scandal.

The new progressive mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has a vital interest in solving the conflict. However, facing a structural budget deficit of US$ 271 million in 2006,15 the city won’t buy the land back. At this point it seems more likely that the mayor will intermediate a deal between Ralph Horowitz and the ‘Trust for Public Land’.16 The Trust would have to raise about US$ 16-18 million to buy the property from Horowitz, and would then turn the gardens into an environmental community project.

Entrepreneurial urban politics and the conflict over the South Central Gardens

Under current political and economic conditions, cities do not have much choice but to try to attract private investment and keep their capitalists happy. In the past 25 years, federal aid for local governments has constantly been cut back. The big shift in national urban politics came under Ronald Reagan. “Overall Reagan cut federal assistance to local governments by 60 percent. In 1980, federal dollars accounted for 22 percent of big-city budgets, but when he left office, it was down to 6 percent.”17 The urban suffering continued under Bush senior and currently under George W. Bush. “Thanks to his US$ 1.3 trillion tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy, Bush made it impossible for Washington to provide any significant aid to the nation¹s cities or to the poor.”18

© Leopoldo Peña, www.leopoldopena.com

Deregulation of regional and global markets, such as through NAFTA, puts cities in competition on a national and international scale. In Los Angeles, hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs were lost over the 1980s and 1990s and the typical “post-Fordist” dualization of the labour market hit the city hard. “As late as the early 1980s, two-thirds of L.A. manufacturing jobs were in higher-paid, often unionized industries such as autos, tires, electronics, and aerospace. […] By the year 2000, nearly half of the regional manufacturing employment was in lower-wage sectors, exemplified by garment, furniture, toy manufacturing, and food processing.”19

Today, cities like Los Angeles are under incredible fiscal pressure to generate the necessary revenues to cover their immense costs for infrastructure, social programmes, administrative staff, and so on. As cities cover a good part of these costs by issuing municipal bonds, they additionally have to generate billions of dollars to pay back interest on private loans. In 2005, Los Angeles’ debt amounted to $600 million in “tax and revenue anticipation notes” and almost $10 billion in long-term bonds.

Entrepreneurial urban politics in Los Angeles must be discussed in this light. Los Angeles’ strategic public investment into the Alameda Corridor is a very successful political strategy to deal with the increasing economic pressure. It secures the city’s role as the gateway for US trade with the Pacific Rim. In 2001 the value of merchandise trade in Los Angeles amounted to $270 billion.20 “The Los Angeles Customs District (LACD) had a 54 percent share of the total West Coast merchandise trade.”21 The city’s investment in local infrastructure up-grades the locality, creates favourable business environment, employment, and tax revenues.

At the same time, the investment into the Alameda Corridor leads to the privatization of public spaces and – in this specific case – it threatens the livelihood of 350 low-income migrant families. Clearly a political catch-22 situation. The roots of this fundamental contradiction can be traced back to the logic of the capitalist city itself.

However the conflict over the urban farmland in South Central is resolved, the one actor who will not lose is the developer. Either the farmers will be evicted and the land handed over to him, or he can sell the land to a non-profit. In the first case, the developer will build warehouses and – thanks to the city’s generous investment into the regional infrastructure – will rent them for good money. In the latter case, the developer would make about US$ 10 million just by signing the contract. Entrepreneurial urban politics clearly give the developer a structural advantage.

The South Central farmers and the right to the city

Pointing out the heavy business interest in the property on Alameda and 41st Street and the local government’s need to develop the area, the question arises as to why the campesinos have been so successful in defending the gardens. After all they’ve managed to stay in the gardens since the public property was sold to the developer in fall 2003.

© Leopoldo Peña, www.leopoldopena.com

Certainly, an important step was to call themselves “South Central FARMERS”. This allowed the campesinos to frame the conflict as a struggle for a cross-ethnic project (as opposed to a Latino-project), as a fight for food security, as an environmental issue, and to point out its positive effects on neighbourhood-security. In this way they were able to connect their specific issue – the defence of the gardens – to a variety of social problems in the city (on the importance of ‘framing’ see 22 In fall 2005, the farmers had successfully mobilized more then 50 local and regional environmental organizations, student¹s initiatives, migrant networks, and grassroots groups, and they had received a lot of support from the regional, national, and international media.

Most of the farmers are migrants from Latin America, originally displaced from their home countries by neoliberal policies. In 1992, they began farming in South Central to satisfy their most basic needs. Since 2003, the gardens really have become an example of what Roger Keil calls ‘insurgent civil society’. Its a place, where Angelinos collectively resist the privatization of public space, and defend a communal project against business interests: through debates and discussions, organized protests, through lobbying city hall, and civil disobedience. Since July 2005, the South Central Farmers and their supporters keep the gardens actually squatted twenty-four hours a day. Looking at the South Central Farmers seems almost like looking at a Weberian ideal-type of an urban social movement: the organizational infrastructure of the South Central Farmers is grounded at the urban level, and the participants of the movement perceive the urban arena as a strategic site for mobilizing support and for making claims upon the political system.23 The regional coalition that supports the farmers relies heavily on decentralized forms of (network)protest and on the use of electronic means of communication (email, website, etc.). In this sense, the South Central Farmers are (or better: initiated) a very modern and flexible urban social movement, relying on a broad mix of supporters, techniques, and tactics.

Many new social movements struggle with the social consequences implied in this type of flexible network-structures.24 Network-organizations often face low levels of inner-coherence and lack of continuity. In comparison, the farmers and their supporters have been able to build a strong collective identity and can count on a great number of highly committed activists. The clear advantage of the South Central Farmers: their struggle is directly related to an actual physical space. The gardens themselves serve as a physical space of organization/mobilization and community building through face-to-face communication. They have become a symbol and a reality of a semi-autonomous space and an ecologically sustainable project. The gardens provide a real-world place, where the idea of solidarity and reciprocity (instead of exchange) can be practiced and experienced every day.

Some observations and remarks on the struggle’s political perspective

The struggle for urban farmland in South Central, L.A., provides rich empirical material for the study of the complex relationship between entrepreneurial urban politics and urban social movements. The examination of the conflict allows us to make a variety of observations concerning the “actually existing neoliberalism” and its urban configuration.25

The political realm of Los Angeles is highly defined through neoliberal policies, applied by the federal government, and by structural transformations on the national and global scale. The case of Los Angeles is not exceptional. Today, cities face increasing difficulties in generating the necessary revenues to reproduce ‘the urban’ as a social entity. The fiscal pressure is a strong structural force beyond local control, which leads to the implementation of entrepreneurial urban policies, and provides a coercive entrepreneurial rationality for the local state.

Within this neoliberal “logic of action”, the local government of Los Angeles actively intervenes to shape social and economic relationships in the city. Despite the neoliberal discourse on the “lean state”, the local state remains a crucial actor in the political arena. The attempt to privatize the South Central Gardens can hardly be described as a state withdrawal or as an act of deregulation. On the contrary, its a strong political intervention. In fact, the concept of “entrepreneurial urban politics” necessarily implies that the local government plays a powerful and active part in the political game.

As the case of South Central L.A. shows, entrepreneurial urban politics lead to social resistance. Whether it be individual subversive practices of everyday, the emergence of new progressive social movements, or conservative “not-in-my-backyard” mobilizations – “the city” remains a result of social and political conflicts between different actors, values and forces. Any analysis of the entrepreneurial city has to take that in account, and examine not only the implementation of neoliberal policies, but also take a close look at the policies’ echoes and effects “on the ground”.

In the case of the South Central Farmers, neoliberal politics ironically strengthen collective action and grassroots mobilization on the local level. The marginalized group of migrant farmers has become a powerful collective actor and has successfully transcended the narrow borders of its ethnic community. The environmental anti-LANCER protests from the mid-1980s find an important continuity through the current struggle for farmland. Under certain circumstances, neoliberal policies obviously advance the struggle for “local citizenship”, and function as a catalyst for “urban politics from below”.

These observations bring us to the closing remarks on the political perspective of the South Central Farmers. Having emphasized the notions of conflict and struggle, an important question for the near future is how other actors and institutions – especially the local authorities – will respond to the social resistance in South Central.

Obviously, the most urgent challenge for the struggle in South Central is to save the gardens. However, what will happen if the farmers win their fight? The land will probably be bought by the “Trust for Public Land”. But will the story end there? Will the gardens be transformed into just another NGO, dedicated to the delivery of alternative community services, which the entrepreneurial city doesn’t provide anymore? Will the insurgent character of the South Central Farmers be domesticated by “routinized cooperation with the local state”26 The neoliberal city’s ability to co-opt and incorporate social movements should not be underestimated.

Or, will the gardens remain a place where Angelinos engage with the “politics of space”? Will the farmers’ struggle trigger some sort of domino effect? Will they become part of a broader urban movement? Over the past three years, the South Central Farmers have done an incredibly successful job in defending a communal project and in bringing together a broad and powerful coalition. Chances are good that their claim for urban farmland will strengthen and amplify the struggle for ‘the right to the city’ in Los Angeles.

  1. Judd, Swanstrom (1994): City Politics. Private Power and Public Policy, New York.
  2. Mayer (1994): Post-Fordist City Politics, in: Amin, A. (ed.): Post-Fordism: A Reader, Oxford, 316-337.
  3. Harvey (1989): "From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Tranformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism", in: Geografiska Annaler, 1, 3-18; for a more detailed discussion see: Jessop (1997): "The Entrepreneurial City: Re-Imaging Localities, Redesigning Economic Governance, or Restructuring Capital?", in: Jewson, N., MacGregor, S. (eds.): Transforming Cities: Contested Governance and New Spatial Divisions, London, 28-41; and Clarke, Gaile (1998): The Work of Cities, Minneapolis.
  4. Sassen, S. (1991): The Global City, New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton; Sassen, S. (1999): "Whose City Is It? Globalization and the Formation of New Claims", in: Beauregard, R. A., Body-Gendrot, S. (eds.): The urban moment. Cosmopolitan essays on the late 20th-Century City, London, New Delhi, 99-118.
  5. Mayer (2000): "Urban Social Movements in an Era of Globalization", in: Hamel, P., Lustiger-Thaler, H., Mayer, M. (eds.): Urban Movements in a Globalizing World, London, New York, 141-157; Nicholls, Beaumont (2004a): "Guest Editorial: the Urbanisation of Justice Movements?", in: Space and Polity, 2, 107-117.
  6. Keil, R. (1998): Los Angeles: Globalization, Urbanization and Social Struggle, Chichester, 35.
  7. For a detailed report on the gardens' history see: Kuipers (2006): "Trouble in the Garden", in: Los Angeles CityBeat, 26 January.
  8. Specifically on LANCER see Gottlieb, Vallianatos, Freer, Dreier (2005): The next Los Angeles. The struggle for a livable city, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 42-43.
  9. Davis (2002): "Burning Too Few Illusions", in: Leftturn, 6.
  10. Gottlieb et al. 2005: 46.
  11. Peña (2005): Farmers Feeding Families: Agroecology in South Central Los Angeles, Lecture presented to the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Colloquium; University of California, Berkeley (10 October 2005).
  12. City of Los Angeles Demographics, 2000 Census: http://cityplanning.lacity.org
  13. The Los Angeles 'Ethic Commission' publishes all official donations to city hall members and administrative staff made since 1999 on its website http://ethics.lacity.org. A search on this website reveals that developer Ralph Horowitz and his business-partners made several donations to city hall members and to city attorney Rockard J. Delgadillo, who advised city hall to sell the property on Alameda and 41st Street to Ralph Horowitz.
  14. For more details on the campaign and on the legal status of the property, see the excellent South Central Farmers' website: www.southcentralfarmers.com
  15. See: "Mayor Sees Bleak Budget Scenario", in: Los Angeles Times, 2 March 2006; and "Chick Reiterates Budget Concerns", in: Los Angeles Times, 3 March 2006.
  16. See: "Land Trust Seeks to Purchase South L.A. Community Garden", in: Los Angeles Times, 15 April 2006.
  17. Dreier (2004b): "Urban Suffering Grew Under Reagan", in: Newsday, Download: www.commondreams.org/cgi-bin/print.cgi?file=/views04/0610-01.htm
  18. Dreier (2004a): "George W. Bush and the Cities: The Damage Done and the Struggle Ahead", in: Progressive Planning Magazine, Fall 2004, Download: www.plannersnetwork.org/publications/2004_fall/dreier.htm
  19. Gottlieb et al. 2005: 85f.; see also: Scott (2002): "Industrial Urbanism in Late-Twentieth-Century Southern California", in: Dear, M. J. (ed.): From Chicago to L.A. Making Sense of Urban Theory, Thousand Oaks, London, New Dehli, 163-179.
  20. Erie (2004): Globalizing L.A. Trade, Infrastructure and Regional Development, Stanford, 10.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Snow, Benford, Rochford, Worden (1986): "Frame alignment processes, micromobilization, and movement participation", in: American Sociological Review, 51, 464-481.
  23. Nicholls, Beaumont (2004b): "The Urbanisation of Justice Movements? Possibilities and Constraints for the City as a Space of Contentious Struggle", in: Space and Polity, 2, 119-135.
  24. For a discussion on 'new social movements' see Kriesi (1996): The organizational structure of new social movements in a political context, in: McAdams, D., McCarthy, J., Zald, M. (eds.): Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements, Cambridge, 152-184.
  25. Brenner, Theodore (2002): "Cities and the Geographies of 'Actually Existing Neoliberalism'", in: Antipode, 3, 349-379.
  26. Mayer 2000, op. cit.

Published 9 October 2006

Original in German
First published in dérive 24 (2006) (German version)

Contributed by dérive
© Henrik Lebuhn/dérive Eurozine


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