August 04, 2011

Compton's Hidden Agricultural Riches: Richland Farms

Who knew Compton, infamous in hip hop lore for crime, drugs, and gang-related violence, was such a friendly place to visit?

I think most Angelenos - and my fellow 33,000 residents of Beverly Hills - would never step foot out of their cars in Compton, much less drive there at all, but when I heard that there was a rich history of urban farming there, and I'd have the chance to visit some of the farms, I thought, "Eh, why not?"

Turns out I should have been more enthusiastic. The area of Compton zoned for agriculture, Richland Farms, is freaking awesome.

We were welcomed with open arms by Dr. Wilkins, our host for the day, whose natty suit paled in comparison to the 200 year old carriage he appropriated as his pulpit, telling us about the community he leads, in a neighborhood they are desperately trying to preserve.

Sure, some of the custom homes there have seen better days, and look a bit worse-for-the-wear compared to the "mansions" that stand alongside them. Sure, some of the cars, both parked and crawling down the streets, look a little rough around the edges.

Sure, the locals peered at our walking tour group through their car windows like we were total wackos. After all, with no sidewalks, Richland Farms doesn't look too pedestrian-friendly.

But there are some amazing things happening just beyond the surface of Compton, including a horse-riding and training camp for kids, who learn to take care of the horses and to compete, teaching them essential skills and keeping them off the street.

And the urban farms of Compton are not crops planted on rooftops like in New York City. They consist of corn stalk-lined driveways, chickens, cows, and goats.

There are also horses everywhere, ridden through the streets by caballeros while the cars drive on past. The horses will show off a bit if you ask them to, doing a little clip-clop dance in place on a street corner. But where they really get to show their stuff is on the farms and ranches that lie behind the inner city homes in this close-knit community.

Who doesn't want to see a horse show and eat chips and guacamole on a sunny Sunday afternoon?

In some ways, life is simple in Richland Farms. People raise farm animals, harvest their milk and eggs, and then either kill and eat them for their meat, or barter them with their neighbors for other foods or supplies they need. They drink the milk raw, spiked with a bit of tequila to kill off any bacteria.

Young men wash horses in their driveways the way other teens wash their cars, soaping them up in the sun, hosing the suds off, white water running down the side of the street.

The multiple generations of families who have grown up and live there resist change, and would prefer to preserve Richland Farms exactly as it is (ideally through the designation of a historic district, which they're trying to get).

But Richland Farms is just one small enclave within the City of Compton, a city whose bad reputation precedes it, a bad reputation that is not unearned. Its residents are up in arms about having to pay for parking permits to park in front of their own houses (welcome to my world). They welcome visitors, so they can create awareness about their community, and educate their Angeleno neighbors about their way of life.

But I wonder if it isn't better to not draw too much attention to themselves, if they don't want to invite change. Sometimes that which is hidden can only remain special if they can remain truly hidden.

Here's a highlights reel of our walking tour:

And here's a great video courtesy of KCET:
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Further Reading:
Richland Farms: An Introduction (KCET)
Straight Outta Compton on Horseback (NPR)
Farming In Compton's Core (Los Angeles Times)

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