Ron Finley, recognized as the world’s “Gangsta Gardener,” was out tending to his garden a few days after southern California’s latest rainfall. This is Mr. Finley’s happy place. In addition to providing an amalgamation of fresh produce, it allows him the opportunity to connect with the soil. Mr. Finley tells me that plants aren’t the only thing you can find in this version of paradise. As he was working, a small lizard made its way into the crux of his shovel.
“How did you get here?” Ron says. “I haven’t seen a lizard here [in South Central Los Angeles] in 15 years. I used to see them all the time as a kid.”
This is just one illustration of how Ron is rebuilding an ecosystem. He considers South Central Los Angeles his home. Before he began his work with LA Green Grounds, a volunteer organization dedicated to helping individuals build edible landscapes and urban farms, the neighborhood was a food desert. Food deserts, which are defined as part of the country where citizens lack access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods, and are usually found in impoverished areas. Rather than farmers markets and grocery stores, these areas rely on gas stations and fast food chains. Over 23.5 million people in the United States live in a food desert, and almost half of them are low income.
Nearly one million of these people live in California. As a city, Los Angeles is full of extremes. Less than 10 miles from Ron’s neighborhood, Hollywood starlets and plastic surgeons sip green juices and eat chicken pâté at farm-to-table restaurants, while the options in South Los Angeles are limited to Del Taco and Doritos. This sort of diet has frightening ramifications. In his famous TED Talk, Ron describes the influx of health-related diseases that were plaguing South Central. He says, “More people are dying from disease than drive-bys.”
When I spoke to Ron over the phone, I was able to witness his passion firsthand. He’s a busy man (in between gardening, public speaking, and volunteering he also finds the time to take an aerial silks class), and seems to thrive off his work in nature. Phone interviews can be tricky, but Mr. Finley’s devotion to his cause rang so clearly that it felt as if he were in the room with me.
“It’s instinctual,” he says, referring to his work in the garden. “We share 50 percent of our DNA with bananas. We’re energy. We decompose just like everything else. I know it sounds like some hippie shit, but it’s real.”
This is a common thread in Ron’s philosophies. Humans are wild things, as much as a part of nature as the plants stemming from his garden. It’s natural for us to blossom in the soil and to nourish ourselves with things from the Earth. It feels good.
Ron’s success within his community (and the rest of the United States) is a prime indicator of the truth behind this theory. Many people have been inspired by his Gangsta Gardening, and are further fueled to start their own relationship with the edible earth. His assistant, Ashleigh, started out as the garden’s caretaker, waking up early every morning to water, maintain, and harvest the plants. She tells me that this job came at a fragile time in her life, and she was “looking to be part of something amazing.”
“There are two types of things that I learned from Ron,” Ashleigh continues. “One was the more superficial stuff: how to plant, how to handle seedlings, how to compost. But more than that, I learned how to look at things through a different lens. How to not accept what you’ve been given and make it what you want.”
But creating “what he wanted” was not necessarily an easy process for Ron. He began the project in response to the frustration he felt with the inequality in his neighborhood. The more people got sick with health-related diseases, the more Ron yearned for a change. He was tired of driving 45 minutes to Whole Foods just to get an apple that wasn’t “impregnated with pesticides.” Then he realized that he was a designer, and it was up to him to shift the design.
He noticed that the parkways, the space between a sidewalk and the street, was an empty but viable space for planting. And though it was technically owned by the city, it was the resident’s job to maintain the area. He decided to transform this space into something beneficial, and began planting various fruits and vegetables to provide an alternative to the sodium-laden snacks.
“A lot of the people were like, ‘What the hell? That’s outside the box thinking,’” Ron says. “But there is no fucking box. This is just thinking.”
“Ron pushes people to be their absolute best.”
The idea was smart. It was cost-effective, simple, and added beauty to a neighborhood that needed a little love. But not everyone was on board. The city complained and ordered him to stop. They technically owned the parkways, and though the gardens were benefitting the community, officials weren’t keen on turning the parkways into edible landscapes. But Ron saw that this land was too good to give up. (There were 26 miles of vacant lots! This equals out to 20 central parks!) And in a place where kids have to eat yellow powder and puffed corn to satiate their hungry, the idea of stopping was unacceptable. Within a few weeks, Ron had a petition with 900 signatures, and he was able to take control of the project.
Since then, Gangsta Gardening has become more than the actual activity of planting and harvesting; it’s a movement. When he’s not working with LA Green Grounds, Ron is traveling the country for public speaking engagements. A few weeks ago, he was a the University of Denver. The students told Ron that he was inspiration, that he was motivating them. He reveals that he was so choked up, he almost wasn’t able to do his presentation.
Getting youth involved in gardening not only gives them good things to eat, but it can also provide a sense of self-worth. Ron describes anyone who allows society to make dietary decisions for them is “a food slave.” By taking control of their garden, and thus the food that goes into their bodies, children and adults enable themselves to make their own decisions.
When I spoke to Ashleigh, she also revealed how her work with nature gave her a sense of self-worth. In her community, and the communities LA Green Grounds is trying to reach, there’s a lot of self-doubt. The limitations placed on these communities can make everyone, especially children, feel as if they’re limited.
“The limitations that are put on you, you adopt as your own.” Ashleigh says. “But Ron pushes people to be their absolute best. He taught me to say, ‘You’re not limited. You’re only limited to the point you want to be.’”
In order to get more people involved in the movement, Ron tells me what he tells everyone else: “Make gardening cool. Make that shit sexy. Get all the money you can get. And remember you made that money.”
Did you ever spend your afternoons dancing with Mother Nature, coming home with soil in your nail beds and grass-stained-jeans? While the act of getting outside has fallen out of fashion, Ron is hellbent on making it accessible. Embracing and understanding the origin of food is admired. Digging your hands in the dirt is cool. After all, have you ever looked at someone taking a bite of a raw tomato and thought that they didn’t look like a badass?
It’s fun, downright delightful to imagine gardening a sexy, cool experience. Ron has made his own garden one badass oasis. It’s not a neatly plotted, manufactured space; we’re talking straight out of The Secret Garden, with spirals and tangles of various colors and fragrances lining the streets. It’s a sensual experience. Gardens like this one flood you with appreciation for the wild nature that exists in both yourself and Mother Earth.
Most people get involved with Ron through LA Green Grounds. The mission of the company is simple: to empower South LA’s communities and beyond, one garden at a time. Residents can host garden “dig-ins” and invite family, friends, and neighbors to come together and convert a regular lawn into an edible landscape. Areas that were previously dried and empty are now bursting with strawberries, pumpkins, kale, tomatoes, sunflowers, and peppers spanning every color of the rainbow. There were now clusters of blueberries where empty Cheetos bags had once blown by like tumbleweeds.
Perhaps we all need to reclaim that childlike connection to the Earth. Ron has done so; he’s a modern day Thoreau, with the garden as his Walden Pond. He understands the instinctual relationship between humans and the wild.
“I want to advocate, see, and show people that they can change their lives,” says Ron. “The soil is the catalyst, but it’s also the canvas for change.”
Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel. She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at amandakohr.com.