Sure, there are parallels between gardens and societies, but when asked if what he’s saying is that South LA’s social problems at ground level can only be cured if, quite literally, the ground of the region’s neighbourhoods is worked. He calls himself a “Gangster Gardener” and his T-shirt is emblazoned with the slogan ‘Plant some shit’. “Because you know what?” asks Ron rhetorically: “Being a gangster doesn’t mean running around robbing corner stores, dealing drugs, or killing. Real G’s ask questions.”
IN DEEPEST SOUTH-CENTRAL LOS ANGELES, A T-SHIRT DESIGNER STARTS USING THE PARKING LOT IN FRONT OF HIS HOUSE TO GROW VEGETABLES AND SAVE HIS NEIGHBOURHOOD.
Plant some shit
On Tuesday, Ron Finley got back from Sweden, where he was invited to speak about how cabbage could just be salvation. On Thursday, he needed to build a stall he can use to sell peaches on Saturday, and so that means he needed to get on friendly terms with his neighbour on Wednesday so that she’d lend him the equipment he needs. It’s a busy life, and so on Friday, he snaps: “Yo man, fuck off!” he yells at a skateboarder with dreadlocks who stops by outside his house to tell him that there is no point to what he is doing.
So what is Ron Finley doing? Growing fruit and vegetables – urban gardening in that urban jungle par excellence, South-Central Los Angeles.
If asked, Ron is happy to tell people about what he’s doing, but he doesn’t go around “preaching”, as he puts it: “People need to work it out themselves.” Work out what? That fruit and vegetables are healthy, for a start. The parkway in front of Ron’s house is actually municipal property, but it’s now covered in banana and fig trees; lemons and tomatoes, chard and various flowers grow there, too. He’s built two compost heaps and a bench made of tree trunks, backed by a crescent made of woven branches and covered in climbing herbs.
The Ron Finley Project
While the sun beats down mercilessly on adjacent lots, Ron Finley’s garden offers welcome shade buzzing with insect life. The temperature is a few degrees lower than on neighbouring lots. “I’m not growing vegetables,” says Ron as he picks a peach, “it just looks like that. What I’m actually growing is hope.” He named the project after himself: the Ron Finley Project, RFP for short. Ron’s motto is as simple as it is cryptic: “You wanna change something, you gotta change the soil.”
A car pulls up. A woman called Ashleigh jumps out. She takes care of press enquiries for Ron and organizes his appearance at stands where he shows children what a tomato actually looks like. Ashleigh’s got a three-inch scar across her neck. “Oh that? Jail,” she says breezily when asked about it, “but I survived. Then, she changes the subject: “Aren’t the melons round the back beautiful?”. Ron adds: “Gardening is the most therapeutic thing you can imagine, because it gives young people a feeling of self-worth.”
Ron’s plan is to make growing vegetables legitimately gangsta, to make it cool; then, in the longer term, it won’t be just the social structure of the neighbourhood that changes, but a whole lot more. “What I’m talking about is giving people work, getting the kids off the street.” Finley is convinced that the microeconomic circumstances of his area would change profoundly if people just ate more healthily; there would be different types of stores. “Fast-food restaurants got nothing sustainable about them,” says Ron.
He started by planting up the vacant parking lot in 2010. Although it is officially city property, residents are responsible for its upkeep. So Ron started thinking about what he would most like to eat and what his neighbours might like. Right from the beginning, Ron knew he eventually wanted to plant up everything and that he would end up with far too much for himself, which meant that he would need to get the neighbours involved. For him, growing vegetables is not just about healthy food, but is his form of art.
Space for 725 million tomato plants
In Ron’s view, people derive so much satisfaction from working the land because, in the end, we will all return to the earth: dust to dust. But before that happens, he has got plenty to do, casting an eye down the block; thus far, his parkway is the only one that has been planted up. The City of Los Angeles alone owns around 30 square miles of land: that’s an area around fifteen times the size of New York’s Central Park. Finley nods knowingly: “That’s enough space for 725 million tomato plants”.