In the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, it's illegal to honk your car horn at a sandwich shop after 9 p.m. In Cicero, Illinois, you better not hum on public streets on Sundays, unless you want to risk arrest. And in Aspen, Colorado, don't you dare fire catapults at buildings. These are all actual laws still on the books, lingering remnants of eras long gone and evidence of our judicial system's inability to "clean up" old legislation after it's no longer needed.
Los Angeles isn't immune from arcane laws still technically governing its citizens. It's illegal to herd more than two thousand sheep down Hollywood Boulevard at one time (1,999, though, and you're golden), and if you hunt moths under a street light you risk a citation. But while most ancient laws are nothing more than cute nods to the past, one piece of city code has been rearing its ugly head recently to the point where it's not only ruffling residents' feathers, it's making L.A.'s streets less beautiful -- and less useful.
City Municipal Code 56.08 begins:
When trash, dead vegetation, weeds or other debris are allowed to collect in public places, it affects the quality of life of a neighborhood by reducing the aesthetic value, as well as by leading the community to lose interest in the care and safety of the neighborhood.
From there it details, in proper bureaucratically vague ways, the various "blights" that need to be kept out of city parkways, that area of public grass between sidewalk and street. Things like bushes that have grown too large and tree limbs that obstruct the "free passage" of pedestrians. Which, surely, is something we can all agree on. No one wants to spend a nice stroll dodging urban overgrowth. But what you wouldn't expect is that the law would be used in a way that harasses residents trying to make parkways more beautiful.
Take Los Feliz resident Abbie Zands, for instance. Two months ago, Zands -- along with the assistance of the folks at Farmscape Gardens -- built a trio of raised vegetable beds in the parkway in front of his house on Ambrose Avenue. In order to keep the garden pleasing to the eye, they decided to only cultivate "tidy" crops like herbs, peppers, and eggplants. They also made sure the beds were at least 20 inches away from the street -- so as to allow drivers the ability to open their car doors without problems -- and 20 inches from each other -- so as to allow passersby to walk from sidewalk to street unfettered. (The beds are pictured above.)
"Everyone was absolutely excited about it," Zands told me. "I would say that 90% of people walked by said something positive, and the other 10% were too busy on their cell phone talking. But it's just been 100% positive."
The project was met with such great enthusiasm that Zands created a website, ParkwayToTable.com, to promote urban gardening in his neighborhood. The goal was for people passing by to grab a few veggies, take photos of what they plucked, take them home to prepare in a meal, and post the recipes on the site. "A way to build a community around it," Zands described it. But if you head over to the website now, it's a ghost town, unkempt and untended. Because something terrible happened: The city got involved.
Zands received a violation notice in the mail which told him he "needed to take down the raised beds immediately."
His case is just one of a series of attempts by the city to put the kibosh on these "illegal" parkway gardens. As Steve Lopez noted in the L.A. Times, the city's crackdown on independent vegetable gardens started a while back:
Almost exactly two years ago I told the tale of Ron Finley, who took an urban gardening class and turned his South Los Angeles curb strip into a fabulously bountiful Eden that brought neighbors together and provided free, nutritious food to a neighborhood with too few healthy options. This resulted, of course, in Finley being cited. ... Finley was told to uproot his little slice of Eden.
Angel Teger from South L.A. is another resident who was told to get rid of her parkway garden. Teger's "little slice of Eden" consisted of five fruit trees, some herbs, and a few squash plants, and was a "neighborhood magnet" for local residents to learn how to grow and harvest their own plants. But a few weeks ago, a city "Tree Surgeon Supervisor" swung by and told her to uproot her garden within 48 hours or he'd come by and do it for her. (Teger refused to abide and, in some rare good news, had her citation rescinded.)
"It's just the way the system works," says Dan Allen of Farmscape Gardens, the aforementioned vegetable bed-creating group that assisted Zands. "If nine people are excited about it, but one person's down about it, you get cited. I think that because it's different and bucking the trend of more ornamental landscaping, it gets targeted."
This Wednesday, Zands will head to court to argue his case, hoping the city will use common sense and allow him to keep his three vegetable beds. "I'm just kind of going to state my case and see what they say," says Zands. "Maybe I'm naïve and should consult a lawyer, but I think it's pretty silly for me to have to take them down." But even if the city rescinds Zands's citation, Allen doesn't believe that's enough.
"They still set the precedent," says Allen. "People thinking about doing this on their parkways may see the ordeal that the city has put Abbie through. That could be a deterrent."
Regardless of the outcome this Wednesday, then, is the more pressing matter of changing the ordinance to remove obstacles standing in the way of residents growing their own vegetables. It's really a simple question for legislators: If the Municipal Code is about the "aesthetic value" of a neighborhood, which looks better, the current batch of litter and festering dog poop? Or a cared-for, tended-to, nourishment-providing garden?
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