August 14 2017

Ron Finley, “the Gangsta Gardner,” Wants You to Get Woke

Los Angeles-Stand Up
Consider this: In the first half of the 20th century, Los Angeles County was the largest, highest producing agricultural county in the United States—more bountiful than any county in Iowa or Nebraska. Obviously, things have changed in the last 60 years, and these days the city is better known for concrete than dirt, but LA’s agricultural roots haven’t entirely dried up. Individuals and communities across the sprawling metropolis are planting seeds that not only grow food, but regenerate the soil, clean the air, beautify neighborhoods, and inspire the city’s youth.
 
Before we introduce you to a remarkable individual bringing agriculture back to the City of Angels, here are a few facts to fertilize your mind:
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LOS ANGELES HAS A 365-DAY GROWING SEASON AND AN AVERAGE OF 284 DAYS OF SUNSHINE PER YEAR

IN LA COUNTY, THERE ARE…
1,261 URBAN AGRICULTURE SITES
761 SCHOOL GARDENS
118 COMMUNITY GARDENS
171 FARMS
211 NURSERIES
 
SOME COMMUNITY GARDENS HAVE AS MANY AS 88 PEOPLE ON THE WAITING LIST, BUT 1.4 MILLION PEOPLE IN LA COUNTY ARE STILL FOOD INSECURE

THE CITY PLANS TO INCREASE URBAN AGRICULTURE SITES IN LOS ANGELES BY 25% BY 2025 AND 50% BY 2035

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The most famous urban farm in Los Angeles, and quite possibly the entire United States, is planted in a parkway in South LA. It’s a narrow strip of land—10 feet by 150 feet—wedged between the street and the sidewalk, a green island in a sea of concrete.

On this edible island are fruit trees—pomegranate, banana, almond and orange—as well as tomato vines, a mess of New Zealand spinach and a blackberry bramble that we’re told came from Elizabeth Taylor’s backyard. It’s all the domain of Ron Finley, the self-described Gangsta Gardener, who woke up one day and decided to plant some shit. 


The Standard
Painted chair in header and above left by artist <a target="_blank" href="http://www.adriennewade.com/">Adrienne Wade</a>.&nbsp;
Painted chair in header and above left by artist <a target="_blank" href="http://www.adriennewade.com/">Adrienne Wade</a>.&nbsp;
Painted chair in header and above left by artist Adrienne Wade
The first time Finley planted a banana tree on this parkway, the city of Los Angeles cited him for overgrown vegetation. When he did it again in 2011, the city issued a warrant for his arrest.

“They weren’t complaining when there were mattresses and condoms out here,” Finley says pointing at the parkway, “but I put up some banana trees and some flowers and all of a sudden I’m a fucking criminal."

The parkways, which are technically the property of the homeowner, are regulated by the city, which didn’t appreciate Finley ignoring the restrictions in place on what you can and can’t grow next to an urban sidewalk.

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Los Angeles Times reporter caught wind of the situation and publicly shamed the city for enforcing outdated laws in a neighborhood where organic fruits and vegetables are hard to come by. Then City Council members took up the cause and ultimately the warrant was suspended, but not before Finley’s voice had been heard. In 2013, Los Angeles voted to change the antiquated laws that prevented homeowners from planting food in their parkways. That was one year after Finley gave a
TED Talk in Vancouver, a talk that has now been watched nearly 3 million times.

Now, Finley flies to conferences from Sweden to Qatar to spread the Gangsta Garden gospel: plant a seed and be the change you want to see. Urban gardeners in Rio de Janeiro show him photos of their own edible parkways; kids in India call themselves gangsta gardeners, and “old white ladies” in the UK use his tagline, “Plant Some Shit.” Finley’s message has been heard round the world. 
The Standard
Finley grew up in South LA near Florence and Normandie, an intersection that is synonymous with the 1992 LA riots. Driving around the neighborhood in his black F150, he points out dialysis centers, churches, and fast food. When asked about the inspiration for growing his own food, he points out the window to a liquor store.

“We can walk four minutes to get alcohol,” he says of South LA, “but have to walk an hour to get some healthy food.”

Finley calls his neighborhood a food prison, not a food desert, because while you can grow food in a desert under the right conditions, “your ass ain’t growing shit in a prison unless you have permission.” For Finley, gardening is social justice. “Until you can be self-sustaining, you’re still a slave,” he says, “and that’s what this is about. I don’t grow food, I grow people.”

You’d be hard-pressed not to be captivated by Finley—he’s tall, easy on the eyes, and projects a DGAF attitude. He speaks with a confident, deep voice and lets out a hearty laugh when amused or irritated. Before he was the Gangsta Gardener he was a fashion designer, selling his DROPDEAD Collexion at Nordstrom, Saks, and Neiman Marcus. He began tailoring clothes when he was 15, and his attention to form, texture, and layering can be seen in his gardens. 
The Standard
Finley’s home, which sits just behind that famous parkway, looks over a drained swimming pool decorated with graffiti and brimming with plants. On the surface, it looks like chaos, but there is an inescapable beauty to the layers of organization—a cluster of sunflowers here, a tower of succulents there. The details are not lost on Ron Finley.

Last November, Finley’s house, swimming pool, and parkway were in the news again when the lot was purchased by a developer at a foreclosure auction. Unwilling to budge from his Gangsta Garden, Finley took to change.org and GoFundMe to raise funds to buy the property where he runs his nonprofit The Ron Finley Project. His campaign caught the attention of celebrities and CEOs like Bette Midler, Nell Newman (founder of Newman’s Own Organics), and John Foraker of Annie’s Homegrown, who together with other heavyweights in the organic industry donated the $500,000 he needed to purchase the property—another victory in Finley’s ongoing David-versus-Goliath story.

Throughout his journey, Finley’s message has stayed the course. In contemporary parlance it would be “stay woke,” but in Finley’s words it’s “give a fuck.” When asked how people can act on his message, he’s quick to respond. “Give a fuck about something besides you. What can you do? You can wake up.”
The Standard
Photographer
Shelby Duncan
Writer
Gillian Ferguson