LOS ANGELES — Last Friday afternoon, Paige Emery was standing on a narrow hillside footpath overlooking Echo Park Lake, which was fenced and wrapped in yellow police tape. From this vantage point, you could see the docked paddle boats and empty sidewalks, the green garbage trucks slowly crawling through the park. “No Trespassing” signs hung at regular intervals. Just two nights before, the park was bustling, and now it was a ghost town. Some of the park’s hundreds of unhoused residents had left so quickly they didn’t have time to bring all their belongings. Many of the tents along the edges of the lake still remained, but soon they would be gone.
Last August, Emery, a multimedia artist, had started a container garden in the park with a collective of unhoused residents. In addition to the garden, the group had also built a community kitchen and job program. The pandemic had paused regular street sweeps, disrupting the cycle of displacement and giving the unhoused community more time to organize. When I visited one evening at the end of last summer, Ayman Ahmed, the group’s unofficial spokesperson, was asking the other residents if they had worked that day. If they had, he peeled off bills from his black waist bag, his tiny rescue dog Charlie running around at his heels. “The larger thing is this overall vision we have out here for a restructuring of homelessness, where it doesn’t have to be separated from society,” he told me afterwards. For seven months the garden grew, tended by both the housed and unhoused.
Early last week, word spread that city councilman Mitch O’Farrell was closing the park for renovations, and the residents would be displaced with little notice. Hundreds of activists showed up early on the morning of Wednesday, March 24 to protest the mass eviction, although the police did not arrive until later that night. After an intense stand-off, the city gave the residents an additional 24 hours to evacuate. Emery spent that Wednesday night with the residents in the park. The garden, she said, was “almost more beautiful than it ever had been.” Lettuce, bell peppers, onions, lavender, and thyme grew in recycled planters along the sidewalk, and someone had fashioned a makeshift trellis out of tree branches. A police officer, she said, had even remarked how nice it was. “When we came back in the morning,” she said, “the whole lake was fenced off and we didn’t know that that was going to happen.” Once they had left, no one was allowed to reenter Echo Park Lake.
Over the past year, a faction of Echo Park residents claimed to feel increasingly threatened by the number of tents proliferating in the park. In 2011, Echo Park Lake closed for a $45 million renovation grant, which brought new lotus plants and a renovated boathouse to a space in a neighborhood that’s long been a byword for gentrification in Los Angeles. Along the street where Emery and I stood, the prices of the mansions tucked into the hills climbed into the millions. At the same time, affordable housing is in short supply. Shelter beds and hotel rooms can be restrictive, difficult to secure, and sometimes unsafe; the effort to build more supportive housing has been slow to enact any change; and the city’s initiative to release unused hotel rooms during COVID-19 also met dismal results. With the dearth of safe, affordable, and sustainable housing, and the unhoused often criminalized for living on the streets, jails have become de facto shelters.
By Thursday evening, lines of cops again stood in formation, helicopters droning overhead, as protestors held a vigil outside O’Farrell’s district office. Only a handful of residents, including Ahmed, still remained in the park. The rest by then had dispersed to sidewalks, alleyways, hotel rooms, shelters, and out of public view. Ahmed streamed dispatches from Instagram Live. “There was an air of love and peace and community in the park, and now it’s post-apocalyptic,” he said into the camera. Outside, tensions were escalating between protestors and police. “We brought flowers and they brought riot gear,” Emery said. By the nightfall when I arrived, a dark block of officers, their individual faces shielded, were facing a crowd along Sunset Boulevard. Before long, they were charging and firing non-lethal rounds into the throng. 182 people were arrested. At a press conference the next day, Mayor Eric Garcetti called the operation “the largest housing transition of an encampment ever in the city’s history,” and other city leaders cited it as a model for the future.
As we looked down at the garden the following Friday afternoon, where three police officers stood guard outside the perimeter, I asked Emery if she had ever anticipated this ending. “I definitely was imagining a little sanitation truck just moving things around. I was not imagining a fully decked-out LAPD raid blocking off not only the whole perimeter of the lake, but the whole perimeter of streets around the lake, with riot gear, with helicopters.” she said. “I was not expecting the street sweep that we were dreading was ultimately going to be this gigantic, aggressive police raid that would last 48 hours.” As we spoke, everything left in the park deemed “personal property” was either carted to a storage facility downtown or being thrown out as trash.
But the garden was never about permanence. Emery says that an important part of gardening is composting, and composting — the act of transformation — is cultivating new forms of life from the remnants of the old. “We didn’t know if it would last us a day, but it was about planting possibilities and planting ways of coming together,” she said. On the site where an unhoused woman, Brianna Moore, had died, the garden was a reminder that the earth and its inhabitants, the living and the dead, were part of the same beautiful and confusing puzzle, a total organism that could not be separated by borders, walls, or fences, real or imagined. And though the city had succeeded in breaking up the community, Emery didn’t believe the relationships formed there would be destroyed. “The fact that it not only lasted this long, but grew every single day, and transformed every day, and brought people together every day, I’m in so much awe of that,” she said. “It was an experiment of hope.”
While many community art projects traffic in utopian rhetoric, I remembered how, over multiple visits to the garden, I had seen people from all walks of life become interested in the plants. Emery always invited passersby to plant a seed or repot whatever plant was on hand — usually a donation that someone had dropped off — for a chance to feel their hands in the dirt. Noticing me hanging around the plot one afternoon, one resident named Jude was quick to tell me about the garden. He managed the community’s pantry and distributed the donations. That day, he was watering his cantaloupe, which was still a small green sprout. Later, as part of a video filmed about the project by artist Sara Suárez, I watched him talk about how much the garden meant to him.
“The garden reminds me how much life grows, whether you’re living it or not, it’s going to keep on growing. There’s a lot of emotions put into that garden,” Jude said. “I love this community, I protect it, I love it, and I feed it. Everybody gets what they need.” He had been waiting for section 8 housing since 2002, he said, and was trying not to do anything stupid anymore. “I’m trying to do something bigger. If I’m going to die, I want to die with some sort of dignity. I want my kids to look at me and say, ‘Damn, that’s my dad right there.’”
Now, a half-million-dollar clean-up project is underway at Echo Park Lake. On the hillside, Emery showed me the spot on the sidewalk where the previous night she had spray-painted: You have a beautiful mind. Soon the news would break that the last two residents of the park, Ahmed and David Busch-Lilly, had been arrested. Against the terror, she wanted to communicate a message about our human beauty, the value of every person, despite living in a world that tells us otherwise. “While I was writing this, there are helicopters above me, there were police right in front of me on the street, my friends were getting arrested one street over, and I was watching so many things that we’ve cultivated being taken away,” she said, “and I thought, ‘We need to keep building beautiful things.’”