One of L.A.'s Oldest Community Gardens Thrived for Decades. Then The Water Wars Began.

The old Italian men pass their mornings near the top of the hill, tending thick grapevines and rows of fava beans, smoking crumbling Toscano cigars, staying out of the house. If you try to call Francesco “Frank” Mitrano at home, his wife will brusquely tell you that he’s at “the farm.”

The farm is a patch of soil by the 110 Freeway, where he harvests enough tomatoes from his crop to make spaghetti sauce for his family’s weekly Sunday dinner. “Twenty-one people,” he exclaims.

A half-century ago, Filipino seafarers re-created a piece of the old country on this weedy hillside in San Pedro.

Italian fishermen quickly joined them, as did others with horticultural skills honed all over the world — Mexico, Laos, India, Japan, Indonesia, Croatia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Arizona and Lawndale.

More than 250 parcels are connected by a maze of trails and pipes and hoses. Avocado trees soar as high as 60 feet. Giant banana leaves, ratoons of sugar cane and bright orange guavas — set amid a jumble of sheds, trellises, fences and retaining walls — give the hill the look of a rural village carved from jungle.

The community garden — thought to be the oldest in Los Angeles — grew quietly and off the grid, with unlimited water and little oversight.

But now, in a time of drought, it faces an existential crisis after the city drastically cut its water supply.

Though the heavy rains helped last year, the plots they have nurtured for decades are getting thirstier every day.

Mitrano, 83, barrel-chested with a burl of a nose and a sail rigger’s forearms, sneered at the hose that dribbled at his feet.

“No hay presión,” said Mitrano, using Spanish, the lingua franca of the garden. There is no water pressure.

When he lifted it to his waist, the water rose and stopped just below the metal rim. “This is water? Come on!”

He grumpily whipped the hose to get a drizzle on a row of thick Swiss chard.

The land is owned by LA Sanitation, which uses the top and bottom of the hill, but not the midsection the gardeners took over.

Los Angeles Times

It’s not clear when the farmers first tapped into the city water lines, but officials didn’t seem to care until 2014, when Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered departments to cut water use by 20% within three years.

After sanitation managers found the community garden was sucking up to 300,000 gallons a month, they closed the taps except for a few hours two days a week.

The inevitable result: All the gardeners showed up to soak their soil at once. Water pressure plunged. Depending on where one’s plot was situated on the steep slope, a grower might get an ample stream of water, a trickle or nothing at all. The north end lost water altogether.

About four of the six acres remain leafy and laden with mangoes, loquats and South American guama trees, whose beans taste like ice cream. In the sections with no water, trees turned into gray skeletons and the foliage withered away, unveiling an expansive eyesore of sun-blasted sheds, fences, wood stakes and tattered canopies.

A number of gardeners moved on. Others kept small crops alive with buckets of water hauled down from a spigot at the top of the hill.

Fights broke out now and then as people tried to rejigger the archaic network of pipes to their advantage.

David Vigueras, 66, who grew up in Lawndale, lost his water when a neighbor diverted his flow by placing a T junction in the pipe upstream.

“We had serious water wars going on,” he recalled. “But I let it go. He loves his garden. I love mine.”

A new pipe last year restored Vigueras’ flow — but it left a different neighbor, Arturo Javier, 78, with a dribble. Now Javier grows only a bit of lettuce, radishes, cauliflower, cabbage.

The arid days took him back 50 years, when he left his five-acre farm in Oaxaca because the rain stopped and his crops withered. The sense of peace his San Pedro garden had long instilled was giving way to that old angst of trying coax life out of dry ground. “I might give it up,” he said.

He could become part of a larger exodus.

Soon, the city plans to start charging the San Pedro garden for the water, and elderly, fixed-income cultivators might be pushed out.

Many of the farmers had come to San Pedro in the 1960s to work the tuna fleets, docks and canneries. Others built boats, laid tile and brick, worked in restaurants, zig-zagged the Pacific as merchant marines, and fabricated machine parts in Wilmington factories.

Stuck in small apartments or houses with postage-stamp yards, they needed a place to get their fingers into the earth and eventually found their way to the hillside.

Across battered chain-link and chicken-wire fences separating the plots, they share seedlings and growing tips in Spanish, English, Italian and Tagalog. Sicilians learn how to grow avocados from michoacanos, who tend to fava beansand anise from the Mediterranean.

“Everybody good people here,” said Giuseppe Orlando, 67, a retired fisherman who was picking pepperoncini peppers.

The water situation is more acute in San Pedro because of its big trees, many tended by the same gardeners for nearly half a century. Though most garden councils prohibit fruit trees, or limit them to 5 or 8 feet, San Pedro has no such rules. There are 20-foot orange and lemon trees, even taller fig, loquat, guama and avocado trees. Some fruit hangs so high, gardeners can’t reach it even with a tall ladder and extension pole picker.

I think I like growing it more than I like consuming it. Mostly, I eat it right here when I’m working.

David Vigueras, community gardener

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