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Getting dirty with Ron Finley: The ‘Gangsta Gardener’

Ron Finley, the self-proclaimed “gangsta gardener.” (240464)

Ron Finley owns an Olympic-size swimming pool, but there’s no water inside. The cavernous structure has been empty for several years and currently serves as the centerpiece for a tropical paradise embedded in the heart of South Los Angeles.

“I have three sons—they’re all creators like me,” Finley explained. His voice emitted the joyous tone of a proud father. “They painted these murals [referring to the spray art [graffiti] decorating the curved walls of the pool]. My ex-girlfriend did that over there [pointing to a wooden beach chair featuring her artwork, lodged between clumps of dirt and greenery].”

Finley’s expansive (and elaborate) Crenshaw area garden is becoming a hotspot for residents of LA and surrounding cities. His blooming popularity has also garnered recognition from the media. Over the past several weeks, dozens of the country’s most recognizable publications have flocked to him for exclusive quotes, including the New York Times and LA Weekly. Ammy Scattergood, reporter for the Los Angeles Times, recently wrote:

Finley’s garden includes hundreds of plants surrounding an empty, olympic-size swimming pool (shown here). (240465)

“Above the pool, there’s a network of buckets, shopping carts planted with strawberries, [and] a system of compost bins, beds of kale and oxalis, a nectarine tree growing in a layer of 18 inches of soil above concrete. Butterflies and hummingbirds dart through a pomegranate tree. If you didn’t know it, you’d think you were somewhere in the tropics, someplace like Macondo, author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s imaginary, lush, butterfly-filled town—not in South Los Angeles where Finley grew up and lives, a few hundred yards from the Metro Farmdale Expo station.

She continues, “Finley’s parkway garden catalog [includes]: a Valencia orange tree, a pear tree, a pomegranate tree, papyrus, sugar cane, an almond tree, rosemary, artichokes, chard, flowering celery, Mexican marigolds, Red Russian kale, mint, sweet potato vines, blackberries, fennel, a Santa Rosa plum tree, a banana tree, Christmas Lima beans, sunflowers, volunteer Green Zebra tomatoes, an apple tree, red dandelions, corn, nasturtiums, [and] an apricot tree. It’s a lot of food, but Finley says he grows [it] mostly for himself and his family, friends and neighbors, as well as for groups who visit the garden, either by appointment or accident.”

Graffiti art meets horticultural artistry in Finley’s breathtaking garden. (240466)

Of course, Finley isn’t the first gardener to plant flowers in South LA (i.e. “the hood”), but he’s quickly ascending to heights of prominence that only a few of his contemporaries have reached. He’s a self-taught craftsman, but his lack of formal knowledge hasn’t deterred fans of his work from offering him gobs of cash to deliver messages about gardening. His slogan is, “plant some shit,” and since 2010 he’s been cultivating a colorful network of plantlife and artwork. His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2013, he was invited to speak at a TED talk in Long Beach, Calif.

The footage (an influential video by an expert speaker) has since gone viral, amassing nearly three million views on YouTube, simultaneously transforming Finley into an overnight celebrity of sorts. “Have you seen it [the video],” he asked with a glint of pride in his eyes. “I wasn’t reading from a script when I spoke—it was spiritual. That’s why so many people have rallied around what I’m doing. They can tell this is personal for me. I teach people to value the importance of creating life instead of taking it for granted.”

Finley sits above his slogan known across the world. (240467)

Wiping dirt from his fingers, the look on Finley’s face suddenly changes, and with an intense gaze, he posed another (rather philosophical) question.

“What in life do you believe is most important?”

“Happiness,” I quickly answered.

“No, you’re wrong. I ask everyone I meet this question, and so far you’ve all got it wrong. Oxygen, the air we breathe, that’s the answer. It’s our most precious resource, and we don’t even take the time to appreciate the gift of breathing. These trees [he pointed upward], they provide life. My garden symbolizes creation.”

It seemed evident that from the moment I stepped foot into his oasis, Finley was determined to leave an impression, which I appreciated.

The walkway (entrance) leading to Finley’s urban oasis. (240468)

He plucked a flower and popped it in his mouth. “Everything I plant is edible. Here, try one.” The taste was bitter and acidic. “You didn’t have to go to a grocery store for that—I grew it right here. Over there [he pointed to another region of his garden] I plant sweet potatoes. I grow bananas, blackberries, and vegetables. This garden is my food source. I don’t have to rely on a major grocery chain to provide me with contaminated produce. I have my own—that’s the message I’m spreading across this community and the world.

“Look around,” he instructed. “This garden is dangerous—it represents progress. They [the powers that be] don’t want me to do this. To them, I’m a rebel. I’m not feeding the machine, I’m not putting money into the pockets of large corporations.

Imagine if what I do expands throughout the country and everyone starts to grow their own food. We would put Ralph’s and Vons out of business. We wouldn’t need to rely on the pharmaceutical industry to provide us with addictive medication to cure illnesses caused by the food we purchase at the grocery store. We would be self-sufficient, but more importantly, we would be healthy. That’s my mission.”

His TED Talk turned several heads in high places, catapulting him to stardom and international fame. Today, his resume includes trotting the globe delivering his message of self-sustainablity and salubrious dieting, stemming from his love for watching things grow. “If they wanna pay me $40,000 to give a speech, I’m down,” he said playfully. “I can’t describe the genetic code of the artichoke flower that I’m holding, but I don’t [care]. I don’t specialize in botany; I specialize in growing people. That’s what gangster gardening is all about.”

The phrase was coined by Finley to promote an idea. “Being gangsta doesn’t mean robbing people or killing people or selling dope,” he explained. “I’m gangsta because I’m self-reliant. I grow my own food. I give to my community. I’m changing the world. That’s my definition of gangsta.”

“But aren’t you worried about the negative connotations associated with the word gangsta?” I asked quizzically.

“No. It doesn’t affect my outreach or my business potential. If people don’t wanna work with me because I call myself a gangsta, then so be it. They clearly don’t understand my vision, or the impact of what I’m doing. Right now, I have kids in India calling themselves gangsta gardeners. There are grannies in the UK [England] going by that name. It’s an idea, not a label.”

Finley’s obsession with horticulture, or “gangster gardening,” began with a vacant piece of land covered in debris and grime. One muggy afternoon, after he was booted from his job as a fashion designer (yes, he’s a man of many talents), he stumbled upon an opportunity to reinvent himself.

“I got tired of walking around my neighborhood and seeing abandoned furniture, condoms, cigarette butts and liquor stores everywhere,” he explained angrily. “We can walk two minutes and get a 40 ounce, but how long would it take us to walk and get some healthy food from here [his garden]? It wouldn’t take us anytime at all to get to a fast food joint, or a dialysis center. Billions of dollars are being made from our suffering. It’s terrorism. We [minorities] have no control over our food, so how can anyone tell me that we aren’t still slaves? Why do I have to leave my community to get anything healthy?”

Finley’s original purpose for taking over the vacant land was so that he could redirect his creative energies. Rather than taking the conventional route and hiring a gardening specialist to aid his vision, or simply attending a class to learn the ropes himself, Finley dropped by a local floral shop and gathered raw materials to get started.

“It [the garden] didn’t start with growing food, it started with beauty,” he said matter-of-factly. “I just wanted to look at beautiful flowers. This garden is simply another outlet that I use to exercise my creative ingenuity.”

He continued, “The process wasn’t difficult to learn. I’m a fashion designer. I know how to beautify. When I was a kid, lawn care was my hustle. I would mow people’s lawns. That’s how I earned a dollar or two here and there. The experience I gained as a young pup helped me with a lot of what I do now.”

Finley was the news in November, when his backyard garden and adjacent house, which he’s rented and lived in for years and where he now runs the nonprofit Ron Finley Project, was bought at a foreclosure auction by a real estate development company. Finley refused to leave and instead launched a petition and a Gofundme page, which drew support from major sponsors and companies such as Nell Newman (Paul Newman’s daughter), Annie’s Homegrown (whose president John Foraker personally donated $50,000), Applegate Farms, Dr. Bronner’s (a family business committed to making socially and environmentally responsible products), Patagonia, Bette Midler and Califia Farms. A few weeks ago, the Ron Finley Project bought the property.

“They underestimated me,” he said with a satisfied look on his face. “They thought I was just some Black guy in the ‘hood. Little did they know.”

Finley’s non-profit raised $550,000 and bought back the property from the real estate development company that purchased it for $379,003. According to a recent article in LA Weekly, the sale was part of a settlement agreement in a wrongful foreclosure lawsuit filed in January by Finley’s former landlord and the property’s previous owner, Blanca De La Isla, against Wells Fargo Bank and DLI Properties LLC, the company that bought the property after the bank foreclosed on it.

In the lawsuit, De La Isla alleges that Wells Fargo wrongly advised her to apply for a loan modification without considering her financial situation and without offering anything in writing to confirm her application or explain the process. Unable to make payments on the loan, she alleges that Wells Fargo promised her she would not lose the property — then sold it to DLI Properties at a foreclosure auction about six months later without her knowledge.

Around the same time, DLI Properties filed an unlawful detainer action against De La Isla and Finley in an attempt to evict them from the property, wrote LA Weekly’s Jennifer Swan.

“I’m elated that a group of people appreciated and admired what I’ve done in the food space,” explained Finley, appearing teary-eyed. “[Bette Midler] she came in strong with a hundred racks [thousand] like is was nothing. John [Foraker] donated big money to help my cause. They were my angels. People always tell me how much they’re inspired by what I do while they’re running away from me. I can’t do this for free. Keeping up a garden is damn expensive.”

“Ron’s story showcases the terrible impact of real estate foreclosures in communities like this,” Foraker wrote in a blog post recently after he learned Finley had won his legal battle. “These events shatter lives, break up families and disrupt communities in ways that are unimaginable to most people. Fortunately, Ron was able to face that threat bravely and win.”

Although Finley’s fan base stretches internationally, he expressed disappointment over the lack of support and interest shown by other members of his community. Of course, this hasn’t deterred him from taking his message to local schools, senior living facilities and various public assemblages. He says the reception has, at best, been tepid.

“A lot of people from this area see what I do as menial work,” he explained with a shrug. “ I’m not a slave. I’m not a Mexican. That’s what I often hear. We [Black people] have this disdain for gardening. We’re losing a tradition in our culture that dates back thousands of years. It’s truly heartbreaking.”

He continued, “We need food education in our community. Black people need to be more self sufficient, especially when it comes to what we put in our bodies. We need to change our value system. Illnesses like diabetes and heart disease can be fought with the growth and consumption of healthy, naturally grown food. It’s my mission to disseminate that message.”

Aside from hosting workshops and seminars across the city and surrounding areas, Finley partners with local organizations to build community awareness of clean eating and the advantages of horticulture. He recently participated in the month-long Food Bowl festival presented by The Los Angeles Times. Finley spent an entire Saturday afternoon providing the residents of his neighborhood with savory tacos consisting of fresh ingredients from his lush garden headquarters.

On June 24, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Finley will host “Da Function” at the Vermont Square public library. In its third year, the event will offer participants a day of fun and a sense of community, including yoga, Zumba, wood working, gardening, cooking, and other creative workshops. There will also be food trucks, music, and a blood drive.

If you want to learn more about the gardening landscape in South L.A., you can take a look at the efforts of Finley and three other South L.A. gardeners to transform their neighborhoods via Can You Dig This?, a documentary screening at the L.A. Film Festival on June 16.

“The garden I’ve created affects every sense of your body,” Finley explained proudly.  “Coming here will literally change how you feel. That doesn’t happen with any other artform.”

In related news, a Los Angeles City Council committee Wednesday signed off on a proposed ordinance that would grant tax relief to city farmers and encourage them to transform empty lots into urban farms.

Under the Urban Agricultural Incentive Zones Act, cities are allowed to establish agricultural zones where property owners who allow their land to be used for agricultural purposes for a minimum of five years can receive a property tax adjustment and be reassessed at the average statewide irrigated agriculture land rate.