A few months ago Ron Finley and I were at a roof top garden restaurant in Copenhagen on a cold, stormy night. As torrential rain pounded the glass structure while lightening flashes illuminated the dark skies and the rest of the diners expected to be struck by lightning any moment, Finley was struck with the beauty of the rain-soaked garden lit up by Mother Nature. Beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder especially for a crazy artist of the soil.
We first met at the MAD Food Symposium in Copenhagen many years ago where he shared his vision of “Save Your Food Save Your Life” with the movers and shakers of the world of food. I had heard and read about how one man sowed a seed in the heart of South Central LA that not only transformed the bleak litter strewn sidewalks of his neighborhood but changed lives and a community in the process. It was after getting to know him over time that I have realised how deep the passion and significance of these gardens are to him and his community.
I once asked him who is Ron Finley and he responded “I am an enigma to myself at times but I am just a black guy who planted a seed and all I want is to see positive change and beauty where there is none. I want to see opportunity and not just hope in deprived communities which I believe happens by design in the United States. Fuck hope because without opportunity hope means nothing.”
Finley, with his badass attitude and colorful language, has been anointed with many monikers including Gangsta Gardener, “The Renegade Gardener”, and “Guerilla Gardener” since the man took it upon himself to create a green breathing living space in the gritty litter strewn part of the city of Angels. His tag line has become “plant some shit “as he has done in the parkway outside his own property creating a communal garden. His TED talk a few years ago fired up a storm of publicity making him known as an activist on a mission for change.
Finley envisioned a space with the smell of flowers, jasmine, lavender where bees buzzed by and colorful butterflies visited where senses were assaulted by beauty of nature. His initial thought was if we can grow grass that is just weeds so why not food on the parkways. This idealism was soon crushed, resulting in citation followed by an arrest warrant that he gleefully says branded him a criminal and put a halt to the project. In his opinion, there is a distinction between the virtue and vice of obedience, so seven years later observing that no one complained about the condoms, couches, or other junk on the streets he sowed the seeds to the present garden. Finley’s reasoning behind it being the non-existence of healthy food in the neighborhood, where people would go food shopping in liquor stores that abounded, at gas station mini marts or the drive through fast food that swarmed the landscape. Finley saw that you could buy all kinds of alcohol and drugs but no healthy food in the neighborhood and it was not just the drive by shootings that were killing people but also the drive throughs with their junk food.
Parkway is for the most part the strip of dying grass, except in ritzy neighborhoods, that is between the street and private property. This no man’s land is public property but the city has jurisdiction over it and Finley decided to “plant some shit” on it. The future according to Finley is in redesigning communities so that they uplift people rather than keep them down. This garden where the neighbors worked to grow food created a whole community not just an urban garden with tomatoes on the vines or 12ft tall sunflowers standing guard over the rows of vegetables. Working to build and educate a community is gangsta to Finley. The garden planted by him and his neighbors brings more than food but also clean air, biodiversity in the soil, bees, butterflies while establishing an ecosystem to replace the littered unsightly spaces into beauty.
This beauty has resonated and awakened hope with opportunity to change the life of the man on the street. It has empowered a society to become self sufficient and take the power of freedom to change their community and themselves. It is a beautiful example of what is possible not only locally but globally. The significance of this message has been heard and valued by all those who visit this garden from school children to students from Harvard. Finley’s TED talk and the media noise about his venture brought a change in the Land Use law in 2014 and now it is no longer a crime to plant the parkways in LA.
Financial troubles have resulted in the property being repossessed and the unique garden that is the catalyst to this historic change is going to be lost under layers of concrete. While Finley is no underdog but as he says “a super dog” and neither are the residents of this community. He took on the lawmakers for his community and now the community needs to rally behind him. Time is of the essence or else a piece of living history is going to be lost under the dust.
I spoke with Finley about his garden that is in imminent danger of being lost:
When did it all begin for you?
While I was growing up there were no food stores in my community and basically you ate what was around you. I actually woke up to a silent health crisis when I was in a grocery store in 2008 during the economic downturn. I saw a sign that said some of the tomatoes may be coated with shellac. I thought I am cool on that since who needs shellac that we used in our wood shop to preserve wood. Then I started looking around at kids with type 2 diabetes, obesity, amputations, people on dialysis and it wakes you up and that’s how I started with the garden.
What is your message?
My message is basically beauty in beauty out since when you put beauty into a place and take care and raise a seed with kindness, care, love and affection that is what you get out of it. It’s a very simple message as far as food goes. I feel we live in a world of food apartheid, food terrorism, food factories. We have places where they don’t even have access to water and we look at this pretty food on store shelves that is all uniform and beautiful but we don’t look further into where it came from or the oppression and the sorrow and pain behind getting it to look like that. I want to help people look at food and what’s happening.
How has it evolved over the years?
It has evolved from a random black guy planting a tomato on the streets of south central to a guy who has helped start a movement that has spread around the world. I have spoken from Qatar to Greece, parts of the U.K, Copenhagen to Stockholm and around the United States. It has magnified despite there being no algorithm to this evolution. It has gone all over the world and taken me to places where people have connected to this idea. I get contacted by people from Africa to Korea who have heard or viewed my TED talk which really propelled the message out there. This garden has been the catalyst for getting land use laws changed. Now, since 2014, you can plant gardens and grow food on parkways anywhere in the city.
What does this garden represent to the community?
My garden today represents freedom, inspiration, beauty, and opportunity. People can see how a piece of dirt in front of our houses can be turned into their own oasis just waiting to happen. Like artists paint on canvas or sculpt, I see the garden as art that is beautifying our community. It has changed the landscape so that now people go out of their way to walk by the garden for what it has come to represent to them. It’s the joy they get from the colors, the aromas, flowers and beauty and it’s opened their eyes and minds to what is possible. A lot of people have started growing their own food after seeing what I am growing on the street. I want people to experience it, feel it, smell it, and look as a garden as art, be exposed to taste, touch and smell it. I am an artist of the soil and that is where life springs from.
Why is it important to save this living message?
It’s important to save this living message for the community since it shows the opportunity to do something to change the environment around them and their relationship to food. Not just in LA but in other parts of the country or the world since food is a problem everywhere. This exemplifies that you can grow food while beautifying your surroundings clean the air, save water, eat healthy. Life grows on soil, it’s an education especially for kids who we are basically dumbing down by putting them in classrooms all day and we should put them and the school in a garden not just a garden at the school. There are many lessons to be learned in a garden.
How has the community embraced your message?
A woman down the street has been inspired to plant a garden, started eating healthier and has lost a 100 lbs since changing her diet. Kids come by who never knew before where food comes from and then they pull a carrot out of the ground or see a banana growing hanging on a tree in the heart of this neighborhood. It’s also an education in that money does grow on trees unlike what we were taught all our lives. It a lesson in appreciating what a tree can do, what soil can do. I have people leave seeds at my door, and thank you notes or $1 or $5 in my mailbox because they picked some food off the parkway. The bottom line is that this garden is inspiring people to change their lives and people realize that we can grow food in our neighborhoods.
How can the community get involved to preserve this and how urgent is this situation?
It’s threatened and to save it we need funds in order to make it a permanent fixture and an example of what is possible in underprivileged neighborhoods. This transformation is possible and the man on the street can do it himself. This garden represents life , evolution the power of freedom to make it.
It needs help immediately since this very important symbol not only for South Central LA but for such neighborhoods around the world and is in imminent danger of being lost. This will turn into another piece of concrete and lot of people will lose this life changing inspiration and the desire to change by example. This is the only example I have and there are other gardens but this is unique with the variety of trees and plants, the water catchment system. The garden is 9ft by 150 ft and we also have the garden that is in the property which is inside a swimming pool that we have converted into a garden which is 50ft by 25ft. It will be a travesty to lose it and I am appealing for help to keep the chain of culture going. We are changing the culture by agriculture while changing the culture of how people interact with each other.
How do people get involved?
They can visit www.ronfinley.com