Seeds of Change
By Steffie NelsonIn South Los Angeles, the term “gangsta” isn’t typically associated with flowers, fruit trees or fertile bins of compost, but one day it will be, if Ron Finley has his way. For the self-named “Gangsta Gardener,” planting an edible garden is an act of resistance and empowerment, not to mention a smart financial move. “Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” Finley likes to tell the people who gather to hear him talk at universities, community centers, film festivals and think tanks — not to mention the nearly 1 million viewers who have watched the TED Talk that made his message go viral. Each one of them, he hopes, will take to heart the simple mandate scrawled like a graffiti tag on the T-shirts he’ll often throw into the crowd: Plant some shit.
The crowds and speaking engagements weren’t part of the plan — in fact there was never a plan at all. In 2010, tired of paying through the nose for the organic vegetables that he had to travel to other neighborhoods to buy, Finley — then a fashion designer — decided to plant the median strip alongside his home on Exposition Boulevard west of Crenshaw with kale, corn, squash, peppers, tomatoes, apple and banana trees and much more, plus sunflowers, just because they make people smile. He was happy to share the plentiful fruits of his labors with the public — it’s literally impossible to eat all the food you can grow, he points out — but street maintenance officials took issue with these unorthodox plantings on city property and ordered Finley to pay $400 for a permit to keep them in the ground. Seeing the hypocrisy of restrictions only on food gardens, and feeling the positive impact his garden was having on the community, Finley decided to fight back. He was supported by food activists, the media and a sympathetic city councilman, and he won. Four years later, in 2015, planting fruits and vegetables on these municipal strips (officially called parkways) was legalized across Los Angeles — a huge victory for Finley’s cause.
Growing up with seven siblings in South Central proper — a predominantly African-American community, where the L.A. riots erupted in 1992 — Finley witnessed his share of injustice and ate his share of TV dinners. With liquor stores and fast-food restaurants on every corner but few supermarkets, it’s an area that has come to be categorized as a “food desert” — a term Finley doesn’t think is strong enough. He calls these zones “food prisons,” because he believes the Big Ag corporations that control the food supply also control the residents. People consume chemically and genetically engineered meals because they are cheaper and easier to find than fresh food, and with the health issues that result from such a diet comes further control by the pharmaceutical industry. “Basically, it’s enslavement,” asserts Finley. “The worst kind of slavery is not even knowing you’re enslaved.”
The Ron Finley Project aims to present an alternative. “I just want people to know that they have the capacity to design the life they wanna live,” Finley says. He’s never been motivated by money. (“Do I want a shit ton?” he asks. “Yeah. But that’s not my motivation.”) With the Gangsta Garden he has created a literal oasis in the desert — it’s 15 degrees cooler, on average, than the surrounding properties and frequented by birds, butterflies and bees buzzing around a hive, making “gangsta honey.” Finley’s house is painted sky blue, and steps lead down to an Olympic-size swimming pool, drained, that is covered in vivid graffiti and filled, naturally, with plants. There are leafy herbs and spiky agave and aloe, stalks of corn growing from a tossed-away cob, a pineapple tree he brought back from Hawaii, succulents, palms and perennials — many of them rescued, repurposed or grown from seeds left in the mailbox. Most are in standard pots, but there are plants in shipping pallets and sprouting from an old refrigerator door; there are even plants poking out of recycled potato chip bags. “If it can hold some soil, I’m putting something in it,” says Finley.
This “use what you’ve got” philosophy — the idea that art can happen anywhere, with any materials, not just in a studio — is something he shares with graffiti and street artists. “The parkway is my graffiti,” Finley says. “It’s street art — literally. But the difference is, you can eat my shit.” When people visit, he says, “I want all their senses to be hacked, assaulted. I want them to be beat down by beauty. You come by and you smell the lemon verbena, the lavender, the basil. What other art form can affect every sense in your body?”
The father of three sons, two who are artists, Finley has struck a balance in life between artistry and activism. These days the garden is more about possibility than production, he says, as the seeds he’s sown sprout far and wide. The 2015 documentary Can You Dig This, which Finley executive-produced and stars in, shows the powerful positive impact of gardening on the lives of residents of South L.A., from ex-convicts to kids. For those who want to understand his work from the inside, Finley offers a Gangsta Garden “experience” through Airbnb, where he takes up to eight people for a tour of South Central on his fleet of electric bikes, followed by some gardening and topped off with a five- or six-course meal prepared by a chef and served in the pool. Airbnb’s CEO, Brian Chesky, recently came with a group of friends for his birthday. Finley has also been part of an initiative with the city of Riverside and the writer and organizer dream hampton, whose goal is to change the food infrastructure from the streets to the schools — offering the possibility of real change from within the system.
But for every step forward there is often a step back. One local high school demanded that Finley and his team stop a garden project midway through, because some video posted on social media revealed the poor conditions there, leading Finley to lament how shop classes in most schools have been replaced by computer coding courses. “Fuck coding. Are coders gonna build back Houston? Puerto Rico? Everybody can’t sit in some $1,800 chair in front of a screen. We need to get real with that shit and put people to work.”
In 2017, Finley nearly lost the garden when the property’s owners foreclosed suddenly and he had to come up with $550,000 to buy it outright. Thanks to the relationships and alliances formed in the wake of his TED Talk and his subsequent travels around the globe, supporters rallied around him once again. He raised the money with donations from the likes of Nell Newman, founder of Newman’s Own Organics, and John Foraker, former CEO of Annie's Homegrown. Paper magazine’s Kim Hastreiter threw a farm-to-table benefit dinner in Malibu, at which he was presented with a $50,000 check from Google.
“I didn’t know I had that kind of love or support,” Finley says humbly. “But I did.” Asked whether it might not be easier to do his work someplace other than Los Angeles, he scoffs. “It’s not easy, but who said it was gonna be? If you’re not up for the fight . . . this shit ain’t for the faint of heart. But life ain’t for the faint of heart . . . I’m not laying down.”
It helps that he never has to look further than his own backyard for nourishment and inspiration. “If you give a seed great soil, the seed will destroy itself completely to give new life. If you just break it down, you’ll see, oh shit, that is magic.” Finley flashes a grin, endlessly amazed. “Mother Nature is a gangsta for real.”
Images shown (from top to bottom):
Citation from Los Angeles Department of Public Works, 2011.
The Ron Finley Project Gardens, Los Angeles, 2016 Photo by Jim Newberry.
Gangsta Garden installation with HuskMitNavn mural BEYOND THE STREETS, Los Angeles, 2018. Photo by Beau Roulette.