Farming on a Sliver of Land in the Suburbs

CUF 01 Truck Elliot

I know there are urban farms all over LA, but the last place I would’ve expected to find one was Panorama City. One of the many suburbs that sprang up in the Valley after WWII, the area is a wide, flat expanse of tract homes and strip malls. Initially built in the late 40s, Panorama City was an early experiment in creating a master-planned community, filled largely with pre-fab houses made by Kaiser Homes.

Elliott Kuhn bought this small piece of land near Roscoe Blvd. in 2011, and started Cottonwood Urban Farm (CUF) in 2013. The farm would never have existed had the previous owner done what his neighbors were doing and sold the parcel to developers. Roy Peterson had owned the land since the 60s, and lived in a small house that sat on the back of the lot. It would have been easy for him to take an offer from the investors who were buying up the neighborhood during the last decade, filling the surrounding lots with big, nondescript, stucco boxes. But Peterson didn’t want that to happen to his property, and so when Kuhn approached him about buying the parcel to create an urban farm, he took less than he could’ve gotten elsewhere. The idea appealed to him.

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The home formerly occupied by Roy Peterson.

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Right next door you can see houses built during the construction boom of the last decade.

Kuhn had worked for a while as a teacher, and finally decided it wasn’t for him. He put in some time on farms in Austin, and also did a stint with Tree People. Buying the property in Panorama City was the first step toward starting his own farm, but it took a while to get the land in shape. One of the biggest challenges was clearing the property, which involved hauling off 15 tons of trash.

The farm is small, and the layout is compact, so it didn’t take long for Elliott to walk me through it. Toward the back there’s a tiny grove of fruit trees that produce peaches, plums, and nectarines. As we moved toward the front we walked past patches of lettuce, kale, and chard. A crowd of noisy ducks were splashing around in a tiny water hole, and off to one side there were stacks of boxes that serve as bee hives.

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You can find all kinds of things growing on this farm.

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You can see bees gathered around the opening in the box toward the back.

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The ducks try to keep cool on a hot summer day.

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A grinning statue of Buddha surrounded by greenery.

The farm gets its name from the giant cottonwood tree that rises high above it. Elliott believes it’s at least a hundred years old. I took a number of photos of the tree, and didn’t get a single image that really captured its beauty, but maybe this one will give you some idea.

CUF 50 Cottonwood Vert

Elliott explained that the produce is not certified organic, but he tries to rely on organic principles. Crop diversity and rotation help make the farm sustainable. I asked if he made his living just by farming, and he said no. He’s hoping to eventually make the farm economically self-sustaining by moving into specialty produce that he can sell for a higher profit. Right now he makes ends meet by patching together a few different gigs, including doing presentations for groups and also working as a gardener.

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Elliott tending the farm.

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Sunflowers are amazing.

When it was time for me to leave, Elliott opened the front gate and I stepped from the soft soil of the farm back onto the hard pavement that covers so much of suburbia. I walked back down to Roscoe Blvd. where rush hour traffic was speeding past in both directions.

I know there are a lot of good reasons to make farms a part of the urban fabric. They can foster a cleaner environment, reduce CO2 emissions and offer communities healthier food. But besides all that, it seems to me that in a sprawling metropolis like LA, it’s also important just to have a place that’s peaceful and green.

If you want to learn more about Cottonwood Urban Farm, here’s the link.

Cottonwood Urban Farm

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Moral Mondays in Hollywood

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Does it seem to you like this country is coming apart at the seams? There’ so much turmoil right now, just looking at the news can be a frightening experience. So it was really reassuring to sit in on a Moral Mondays meeting last week. About a dozen people gathered at a coffee house in Hollywood to talk about how to deal with healthcare, homelessness, and environmental issues. There was no tension, no anger. Just people sitting around a table talking about solutions.

Moral Mondays began a few years ago in North Carolina. It was originally a movement led by religious progressives who were alarmed at actions taken by the legislature in that state. Since then Moral Mondays has evolved into an ongoing effort to press for social justice, with the movement spreading to Georgia, Illinois, New Mexico, and now California.

The group usually meets on Mondays at Elderberries on Sunset, an old school coffee house stuffed with books and art. The meeting was moderated by Kait Ziegler, who led the discussion and recorded everyone’s ideas on a sheet of paper propped up on the piano. The question for the evening was, How do you reach out to align groups with different interests? In other words, How do you bring people together? There are hundreds of groups out there campaigning for all sorts of things, from affordable housing to healthcare, from voting rights to the environment. And of course, we all feel the issue we’re engaged in is the most important. So how do we step outside of ourselves to see the bigger picture?

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Elderberries is filled with all kinds of art…

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…and hundreds of books.

Everybody in the room agreed that empathy was the key. Kait suggested one way to practice that was to, “Imagine yourself as your neighbor.” That’s not easy. Most of us are pretty wrapped up in our own lives, often because it takes so much energy just to keep our own head above water. And everybody agreed that extending empathy to others can be difficult. There are so many people in need, and we all have to maintain some boundaries. But we still need to make the effort. Sometimes just letting people know that you’re listening can be powerful.

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Setting up for the meeting.

None of us came up with any brilliant solutions that night, but for me it was encouraging just to sit with a group of people who want to find solutions. Rather than letting the world get them down, or running from the chaos, these people are trying to make the world a better place. I was really struck when somebody said, “One of the biggest problems is that people feel helpless. We’re trained to think we’re helpless.” Is this true? Maybe. How many times have I heard people say they don’t watch the news because it’s depressing? How many times have I heard people say there’s no point in voting because it doesn’t matter who gets elected?

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Kait moderated the discussion and wrote down everybody’s ideas.

We’re not helpless. We can make things better. One of the other attendees said, “If everyone in this town took one small action, change would happen.” This is true. History has proved it, over an over again. Change won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But it can happen.

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Speaking Out on the Housing Crisis

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Housing is the hottest issue in California right now. Here in LA housing costs continue to climb, the pace of evictions is quickening, and the number of homeless is increasing by leaps and bounds. The folks at City Hall talk a lot about taking action, but nothing they’ve done so far has had any significant impact. The situation just keeps getting worse.

So a group of housing advocates, homeless advocates, and renters’ rights advocates decided to stage a protest on Fairfax last Friday. They put up a line of tents along the curb to dramatize the plight of those who are currently homeless, and also the thousands more who will likely become homeless in the next few years.

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Protesters lined up on Fairfax.

The media showed up with their cameras to cover this tent city press conference. The organizers called on Mayor Garcetti and the City Council to develop a plan to create affordable housing, ensure responsible development, and expand rent control.

A number of people spoke about different aspects of the crisis. Victor García, a recent graduate of UCSB, talked about the invisible problem of student homelessness. He told the crowd about UCLA students living in their cars because they couldn’t afford student housing and apartments in Westwood were way beyond their reach. García would like to see an end to California’s Costa-Hawkins act, which the limits the expansion of rent control.

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Victor Garcia speaks about student homelessness.

Emily Martiniuk told her own story, a harrowing account of being evicted at age 59 and having nowhere to go. Contemplating suicide, she had the presence of mind to check herself into Olive View Medical Center, and eventually was able to move into a permanent supportive housing facility. She escaped long-term homelessness, but there are tens of thousands of people on the streets of LA right now who weren’t so lucky. Martiniuk has travelled the US in recent years, speaking about the importance of creating more permanent supportive housing.

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Emily Martiniuk is a vocal advocate for permanent supportive housing.

As cars drove by on Fairfax, protesters stood at the curb holding signs and chanting slogans. Just before I left I heard them shouting, “Tent city! Do something, Garcetti!” Hopefully somebody at City Hall is listening. It would be great if the Mayor and the City Council finally did decide to do something about this crisis.

HP Tents