Of all the epithets to have sprung from the gritty streets of South Central LA, “gangsta gardener” is one of the least probable. But its quasi-oxymoron status is precisely the point for Ron Finley, the artist and designer who coined the phrase as a political statement.
“When I was growing up we used to say, ‘That’s gangsta’. It means it was dope. It means it was the shit,” he says in his deep Californian drawl. “To me, a gardener is gangsta. You grow life. You can’t get more gangsta than Mother Nature. I wanted to switch how kids think. Gardening is freedom, period. Let’s change what a gangsta is. If you’re growing food, you’re gangsta. If you’re educated you’re gangsta. If you’re employing people and giving them knowledge, you’re gangsta.”
Some gardeners are born; others are made. Finley, who will present at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival’s Theatre of Ideas in March, is a member of the second camp. In 2010, he began planting vegetables on the city-owned strip of dirt outside his LA home. It was a reaction to the lack of fresh food in his neighbourhood, the proliferation of fast food outlets and liquor stores, and the many miles he had to drive to access fresh produce. The result, incongruously, was a citation and a USD$400 fine for gardening without a permit. When he refused to pay it, he received an arrest warrant.
“Nobody bothered me when other people would dump their trash and couches and fridges on the street outside my house,” he says, “but I put beauty out there and all of a sudden I’m a criminal. I get a citation and I get a warrant for my arrest. What kind of sense does this make?”
The event galvanised the artist and designer and consolidated his thinking about the inequities of the food economy. While the charge was eventually dropped (“It was embarrassing the City, and the City doesn’t like to be embarrassed”) it sparked a movement. He and his activist supporters now plant and encourage others to plant edible gardens in South Central LA in abandoned lots and median strips. He’s been dubbed an “Appleseed activist” and a “guerrilla gardener”. A typical headline: “Renegade gardener plots world domination through home-grown veggies”.
As he tells MFWF down the phone as he strolls around his garden, “It’s deeper than food, let’s just say that.”
Finley isn’t just a beautifier, although beauty means a lot to him. He’s a true grassroots activist, at home with other gutsy phrases such as “food desert” to describe any underprivileged area, whether it’s LA or any city around the globe, where it’s cheaper and easier to buy junk food than fresh. His central message is that edible gardens are the antidote to crippling but preventable inner-city health issues, poverty and gang violence.
“There’s no food here for a reason but when you go across here it’s like Utopia,” he says of LA and any other industrialised city across the globe. “Why is that? One day you wake up and realise, damn, this shit’s by design.”
“And that’s really what I’m talking about. If you don’t feed a plant, if you don’t give it the proper nutrients in its early start, I already know what is going to happen to that plant. If you don’t put the proper things in you’re not going to get the greatness out. I have a simple saying: good in, good out.”
Finley’s gone viral. His TED talk from February 2013 has, to date, had 3,068,920 online views. He’s in demand as a speaker and educator. The not-for-profit Ron Finley Project promotes gardening in urban poor communities across the globe, from Italy to India. It’s based at the same home in South Central where he was cited for illegal carrot cultivation eight years ago - a former swimming school where the Olympic-sized pool has now been turned into a garden oasis. Finley realised the extent of public support for his movement last year when his rented headquarters and home were faced with eviction by the landlord. Thanks to a Change.org petition and donations and support from high-profile supporters and ethically-minded corporates, he was able to buy it outright.
“To see something you do resonate with people and to see it change people’s lives is amazing. Anytime a community will get together and raise half a million dollars for you, it’s humbling and heartwarming.”
Watch that TED talk. You’ll see Finley in full discursive flight, all sardonic charisma and dry wit and evangelical enthusiasm tempered with a soupcon of anger. You’ll hear phrases such as “the prison-industrial complex”. You’ll get the idea that his crusade is really about justice, in food form.
As for his presentation at the Theatre of Ideas – well, watch this space. “I don’t know what I’m going to say! I’m not scripted. People don’t deserve you to just show up and give you some boxed stuff. I might see somebody on the plane and it changes everything I say.”
The one thing that won’t change is his simple motto: “Plant some shit.” The rest, as he says, will grow from there.