Photography by Ron Finley, shot on Pixel / Text by Kristen Stegemoeller / Brought to you by Google
08 August 2017
In South Los Angeles, across the street from the Farmdale metro stop, a jungle grows on a parkway, the thin strip of soil between the sidewalk and the street. It is a site of wild, audacious beauty, with its mammoth sunflowers, peppers, fig trees, blackberry bushes, Christmas beans, banana trees, papyrus fronds, tomatoes, and flowering artichokes that stands in defiant contrast to the tidy, sun-blasted lawns that surround it. This garden belongs to food justice revolutionary and "gangsta gardener" Ron Finley, who turned this small patch of land between the sidewalk and the street into an edible garden, then a community hub, then a mission statement, then a global revolution. "You don't grow food," he says. "You grow soil, and then you grow people."
It all began in 2010, when Finley decided to take action against the injustice he saw in the lack of healthy, organic food options available to his food desert neighborhood. "Being in South Central, the food is food-ish stuff," he explains. "We can walk five minutes in any direction and get liquor, but we can walk ten miles in any direction, and we aren't gonna get an organic banana." Finley came to the realization that cities were designed for the interests of commerce, not people: "If cities were designed for people, they would look more like forests, and be lush and beautiful, and the air would be clean." He looked at the green grass parkway he'd been dutifully maintaining outside of his home, and decided, "If they're not putting beauty in my neighborhood, I'll do it myself." The answer was radical in its simplicity: he would grow his own food. He dug up the grass, and planted flowers, herbs, and all the fruits and vegetables he'd previously had to drive miles to buy.
The curbside garden flourished under his care, providing enough produce to feed himself and to allow the members of his community to help themselves to anything they needed. "First people thought I was crazy," he laughed. "But once people started seeing, the community engagement was quick." He used his garden to bring local children into the process of growing food, sparking their interest and enthusiasm for homegrown veggies while also teaching them to appreciate "the alchemy, beauty, mysticism and magic of mother nature." Moved and motivated by the impact his garden was having on his community, Finley co-founded a volunteer group that helps other South Los Angeles residents turn their lawns into edible gardens. "We need to change culture and educate people," he says. "You can design the life you want to live, and not live the life that they have designed for you."
However, there was soon trouble in paradise. Parkways are controlled by the city, and Finley's flourishing fruit trees and 14-foot-tall sunflowers were not in compliance with municipal restrictions. He was cited, and told his options were to either get an expensive permit, or cut down the garden. Deeply offended by the ridiculous concept that a pointless patch of grass and weeds was acceptable, while a beautiful oasis that nourishes his community was somehow in violation, Finley chose neither. "I felt, you're not bringing healthy, nutritious food to my community, so don't stop me from bringing it here," he recalls.
He fought his citation tooth-and-nail, gathering hundreds of signatures to save his garden, even as his refusal to pay the fines eventually escalated into a warrant for his arrest. Journalist Steve Lopez visited Finley and wrote about his plight for the Los Angeles Times, which put the matter right in front of Councilman Herb Wesson. Wesson immediately turned the citation into a commendation, and removed the parkway restrictions throughout the city. Ron Finley's work is the reason it is now legal to line every street in Los Angeles with sunflowers and organic tomatoes, and that's exactly what he wants us to do. But why stop there?
In 2013, Finley gave a now-legendary TED Talk about his story, and the radical potential of growing your own food, which brought his ideas to a global audience (the video of his talk is currently just shy of three million views). Since then, he has traveled the world giving lectures, spreading the gospel of guerilla gardening, and getting his hands dirty. "My project, my ideas, my philosophy has spread around the world," he beams. "I've been from Qatar to Greece, to having gardens named after me in the UK, and having kids in India call themselves gangsta gardeners." All this from one little patch of land outside the Farmdale metro stop in South Central. "I got people coming from literally all over the world to see this strip," he muses. "It boggles my mind that this has affected people the way it has. I want this [garden] to be like 'eh,' because everybody has this."
Despite his globe-trotting, Finley's still got his sights set on his hometown. He recently organized a weekend festival in his community called Da FUNction that combined music, food, art, and gardening workshops designed to open minds and inspire new possibilities. "We don't deal in hope, we deal in opportunity," Ron Finley says thoughtfully. "I'd take a cup of opportunity over a boatload of hope any day, and that's what people in these communities need." You can see this principle repeated everywhere in Finley's garden. There's a nectarine tree grown from a discarded pit in a mere 18 inches of dirt. There's a pomegranate tree that started as a branch stuck in the ground. There's a beautiful woven bower made of branches found on the street that has begun to sprout, as if by magic. There are the passionfruit vines, along with many other plants that were brought in by animals or the wind that decided to stick around. Good things will take root and thrive, if given the opportunity.
Learn more about how you can help Ron Finley's Gangsta Garden here.