Forever 21

Photo: loudtiger

When I lived in New York City, I used to marvel at the weeds that would force their way up through sidewalk cracks. What a will to live, I thought: From clumps of dirt crammed between concrete slabs, these vigorous shoots fended off the hard, slapping heels of a thousand rushing city dwellers, just to claim a place in the sun.

The effort to save South Central Community Farm in Los Angeles reminds me of those defiant survivors. Stepped on by the city, evicted two ago years by a developer who gained title to the land in a sweetheart deal (as I laid out in this 2005 article), these pioneering urban farmers aren’t done fighting back. Miraculously, there still seems to be a slim chance of restoring the formerly lush 14-acre property as a site for food production and green space in one of the city’s poorest and bleakest areas.

When developer Ralph Horowitz bulldozed South Central Community Farm in 2006, rumors swirled that the site would be converted into a vast warehouse for Wal-Mart. But now Forever 21 — a clothing chain noted for its flimsy clothes, its past abuses of immigrant workers [PDF] in L.A.’s sweatshop district, its blatant knockoffs of haute fashion, and the fervent Christianity of its owners (John 3:16, anyone?) — wants to lay down roots on the former farm site.

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And Forever 21 has been forging “close ties” of L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who once positioned himself as a champion of the farm, the L.A. Times reports.

The L.A. Times piece doesn’t mention it, but Forever 21 got tangled up in a sweatshop scandal in the first half of this decade. While other scandal-plagued brands like Nike and Gap were caught abusing workers in places like Honduras, brazen Forever 21 was doing it right in downtown Los Angeles. In 2001, 19 workers, who worked at sweatshops spread throughout L.A., sued the company for abuse. (The number of plaintiffs later grew to 33.) Here’s what they charged (PDF):

Sub-minimum wages
No overtime
Worked 10-12 hours per day
Worked Saturdays and Sundays
Had to take work home
Dirty, unsafe factories with rats and cockroaches
No potable water
No health insurance
Fired for asking for small wage increases or for asking for the minimum wage

For three years, Forever 21 denied the charges and refused to pay the hundreds of thousands the workers say they were owed in back pay. Instead, Forever 21 counter-sued the workers, charging them with defamation. The company held fast against a national boycott called to protest the sweatshop conditions. Finally, in 2004, Forever 21 settled with the workers for an undisclosed sum. (The struggle to force Forever 21 to comply with labor law is laid out in the 2007 PBS documentary “Made in L.A.“)

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It’s odd to see Mayor Villaraigosa, who won office in 2005 amid much progressive hoopla, hop in bed with such a company. But hop in bed he has, the L.A. Times reports. Villaraigosa recently appointed Forever 21 Senior Vice President Christopher Lee to the city’s Industrial Development Authority. And get this:

Lee and Forever 21 founder Don Chang were two of several business leaders who accompanied Villaraigosa on his trade mission to Asia in 2006. Six months later, Forever 21 gave $100,000 to Villaraigosa’s successful campaign to elect three new school board members. In recent months, the company agreed to give $1 million to Villaraigosa’s Million Trees L.A. initiative, which encourages residents to plant more trees.

The company also gave $150,000 to Villaraigosa’s staging of the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Century City last year, a donation so significant that Lee was given a speaking role at the event’s closing reception at the Griffith Park Observatory.

Forever 21 is threatening to leave L.A. altogether if it can’t plunk down a warehouse on the former farm site. The farmers, for their part, are urging the city to require an environmental-impact study before allowing Forever 21 to break ground on the warehouse. In place of a highly productive urban farm, they say, such a warehouse would bring in 2,400 daily exhaust-spewing truck trips to a neighborhood already choked with warehouses and semis.

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