The Cornfield

The Cornfield Novela : Another Chapter Unfolds in LA's Long History of Disregarding the Powerless

By Antonio Gonzalez

Even as Latinos (and the rest of Los Angeles ) celebrate the election of the first Latino mayor in 133 years, a behind-the-scenes drama is unfolding at the Cornfield park-site located in the heart of Los Angeles , nestled between Chinatown and Lincoln Heights . In just a few days, the Annenberg Foundation and heiress Lauren Annenberg Bon will launch a public art project that if not dramatically altered will insult many Latinos, as well as exclude local artists and the very community leaders that struggled for years to make the park possible. The project could delay for as much as a year the development of the state park in the Cornfield.

At the same time the Annenberg Foundation Trustee and heiress Lauren Bon hopes to be catapulted into national fame using the Cornfield public space as the canvass for her private vanity. Her defenders claim her ambition is to imitate Christo, the avantgarde Euro-artist who was recently criticized for hanging curtains in New York 's Central Park and proclaiming it public art -a sort of "Christo of the west". Her foundation has appropriated dollars to provide some sprinklers and soil for the site, as well as resources to provide promotional media coverage and museum exhibits.

The sordid drama has its roots in the successful local, city and state partnership that authorized the thirty-two acre Cornfield and forty-acre Taylor Yards parks in 2001, two of the largest urban parks to be created in America in generations. Both parks are former "brownfields" that were bitterly fought over by business and community leaders. Community leaders wanting more green space in park-poor Los Angeles prevailed.

Since then, miserly state parks leaders have only partially funded the parks' development.

They even fought against their use as active recreation sites (with soccer and baseball facilities for local kids) preferring instead passive, unlit "nature" sites that many community leaders fear might become havens for gangs and crime.

Simultaneously, numerous "wolves" began to lick their chops contemplating other

possibilities for the two parcels. Enter "wannabe" artist-heiress Lauren Bon. Bon had been looking for sites for her "enviro-Christo" dream project. After failing to convince LA TreePeople to agree to provide trees for her one tree-one school public project, she gravitated towards a prospectus before her family foundation (the multi-billion dollar Philadelphia-based Annenberg foundation) in 2003 from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Center for Law in the Public Interest (CLIPI) for connected public parks commemorating the history of the Cornfield, Taylor Yard, and the Los Angeles River.

Interestingly, NRDC got an Annenberg grant and went away, CLIPI got the cold shoulder, and by 2004 the CLIPI/NRDC prospectus had morphed into Bon's "enviro-artist" plan of action to achieve fame: showcase her artistic interpretation and sensibility to the media and art world by planting corn in order to detoxify the Cornfield parcel. Single-mindedly, stealthily, Bon went to work to secure support among LA elites to realize her plan.

Little known to most Angelenos , the Cornfield park site was once the railroad terminal where several hundred thousand Mexicans (including U.S. citizens) were illegally deported during the infamous anti-immigrant hysteria of the 1930's. The Cornfield -which was never in fact a cornfield-- train terminal used for livestock and grain deliveries was thought more appropriate for Latinos than the more fashionable Union Station, which was used to transport "more respectable" Americans.

The sanja madre (mother trench) or original aqueduct of Los Angeles runs under the Cornfields. It served LA from its founding in 1781 until 1910. The Cornfields was also adjacent to the original Indian settlements of the Tongva people. It was also home to the original Chinese community of Los Angeles . Sadly consistent with LA history these three aspects of local lore were plowed under to make way for business development and/or Anglo American settlement, and then, of course, forgotten by most.

Fortunately, collective memory is relatively strong among various leaders and artists in the northeast and eastside communities. When Bon's plan was finally mentioned on March 14th at a state parks meeting with the Cornfield's oversight committee, there was vociferous rejection by the stakeholders. Community activists complained that public art at the park should reflect the true history of the cluster of adjacent neighborhoods and the parcel, as well as include substantial participation by local artists, historians, and so on.

Little did they know, however, that a deal had been cut between Bon, the State Parks Department, and Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg to promote her project regardless of community concerns.

Over the next week, Goldberg went to work cajoling and intimidating community leaders. Late on Friday night, March 18th a meeting was noticed for Monday, March 21, to consider the issue again. Only those thought likely to support the project were contacted.

At the Monday, March 21st meeting, Goldberg forcefully managed the agenda, stating repeatedly that the Bon Annenberg project would bring $2 million dollars to the park and that her artistic conception was not open to input or change. According to Goldberg, if Bon didn't get her way, she would take her Annenberg Foundation money and go home, and the Cornfield park-site would lose the sprinklers and soil. The rump meeting voted to endorse the project with 7 stifled dissenters.

Following the meeting excluded leaders bitterly complained to Bon, Goldberg, Councilman Ed Reyes, and the State Parks Department. CLIPI's Robert Garcia argued that public art is not the exclusive province of one artist and that the process was rigged and should be redone. In a KPFK radio interview on April 4th, Goldberg publicly admitted that the process was deeply flawed.

Not surprisingly, Supervisor Gloria Molina, a veteran leader of several community campaigns against imposed development (e.g. the East LA prison, the Vernon Incinerator), whose district includes the Cornfield park-site, was kept out of the loop.

Immigrant leaders came forward from the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association and Mayan communities and argued that consciously contaminating corn (by using it to detoxify soil) is tantamount to sacrilege for many Mexicans and Guatemalans in the neighborhood. For them, corn is a sacred food, deeply intertwined with their indigenous religious beliefs and cosmology.

Together with Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles and Mujeres de la Tierra (Earth Women), this alliance sought to reason with Bon by virtue of a sign-on letter issues after the meeting. They gave Goldberg a list of ten other crops that could be used to detoxify the Cornfield soil (like sunflowers). They urged more community participation in the project. They urged that the Annenberg Foundation commit to funding a true public art project, long-term support for the park, and support for local community-based organizations. All of which fell on deaf ears.

On April 24th, ironically at a Lincoln Park celebration of Earth Day, Bon's representative informed the community that the project would go forward with no changes or input. At this late date, no written plan or budget detailing Bon's project has been made public. Nor has the promised $ 2 million materialized for the Cornfield park-site. Critics note that development costs associated with sprinklers, soil, and seed for the site cost far less than $2 million and conclude the lion's share of the money is in fact to promote Bon's art. And state officials have now disclosed that the Cornfield soil was detoxified two years ago!

The day is swiftly approaching when this culturally imperious, exclusionary, backroom deal may cause an eruption of lawsuits and public protests against the insensitive out-of-towner Annenberg's and their apologists. We hope that cooler heads prevail and that Bon truly includes the community whose park-site she hopes will make her famous.

If not, the best course may be to say no to the Annenberg Foundation's conditional largesse and rely on other resources to finish the park. Latinos have a prudent saying, " mejor solo, que mal acompanado " (better to be alone than with bad company).

But I am less than hopeful for the short-term, for even though my good friend Antonio Villaraigosa is soon to be Mayor of our City, we have only begun to unravel generations of disrespect and humiliation of Los Angeles' low income and immigrant communities by rich and powerful elites. After all, as Jack Nicholson's character was fatalistically told in the climactic scene of the movie of the same name, "Jake, it's only Chinatown…it's only Chinatown …"

Antonio Gonzalez is host of KPFK's Strategy Session, a weekly show on politics and policy.