About three years ago, South Los Angeles resident Ron Finley got fed up with having to drive more than half an hour to find a ripe, pesticide-free tomato. So he decided to plant a vegetable garden in the space between the sidewalk and street outside of his home, located in the working-class neighborhood where he grew up, surrounded by fast food restaurants, liquor stores and other not-so-healthy options.
When the City of Los Angeles told him to stop, based on the old laws that said just trees and lawn could be planted on those skinny strips of urban land, Finley, who is a fashion designer and Blaxploitation memorabilia collector by day, quickly rose to fame as southern California’s “guerilla gardener.” By founding a nonprofit called L.A. Green Grounds, whose monthly “dig-ins” feature hundreds of volunteers turning overlooked pieces of urban land into forests of food, Finley became the face of a public campaign against the city, which owns roughly 26 square miles of vacant lots that he believes could fit nearly one billion tomato plants. The city listened, and is now in the final stages of changing the rules to allow fruits and veggies to be planted along sidewalks.
“I’m pretty proud of that,” said Finley, who recently answered a few more questions for Smithsonian.com.
You’ve called South Los Angeles a “food desert,” a term I’ve started hearing all over the place. Can you tell me more about what that means?
I call them food prisons, because you’re basically captured with your food system. There is no healthy food to be found. Food, if you want to call it that, is literally killing us very slowly. It’s all sprayed and genetically modified and pressed and formed and processed. These areas are devoid of any kind of organic, healthy, nutritious food. There’s not even a sit-down restaurant where you can have a nice meal prepared. That’s what a food desert is. You can go for miles without having anything healthy to eat.
Is this a new phenomenon?
It’s nothing new. It’s been going on for years. It’s just that now we have this proliferation of cancers and asthma and chronic illness. And then you have all these other people who can attest to food being their salvation. We have never heard of half these cancers, and a lot of it has to do with what we put into our bodies. It’s like soil to a plant—if you don’t have nutrients in that soil, the plant is going to get sick and die.
Why did you confront this issue by planting gardens along sidewalks?
My thing is like, “Flip the script.” Let’s start something new. Let’s create a new model. Why are we growing grass? What’s the purpose of that, when you need to eat? When you have water shortages, why would you water grass? It’s more labor intensive, you mow it, and you throw it away. You could be using less energy and growing food and developing an ecosystem that attracts beneficial butterflies, and bees, and hummingbirds. You’re creating an ecosystem where everything is linked. Why do I do this? Because we are nature. Everyone tries to separate us from nature. People think nature is over there, that you go drive to nature. Nah, we’re organic matter too, just like leaves.
Did your background as a fashion designer give you any special talents to tackle this issue?
I’m a human being. That’s my background! I need to eat healthy food. If it’s not there, you put it there, you build it. It was an inconvenience for me to get healthy food, so what better way to make it convenient than to grow it myself? In that, there is a multitude of learning possibilities, from meditation to learning systems to understanding that you can’t just go from A to M. There’s a system you have to follow, and gardening teaches that. Gardening is a metaphor for everything that happens in life. We’re all gardeners. Some of us just forgot about it. It was the first job ever.
Why was the City of Los Angeles initially opposed to the sidewalk gardens?
Because of archaic laws. It happened because the system was not able to adapt fast enough to the current situations. But how long have these neighborhoods gone without triage? The neighborhood must do triage on itself. You don’t wait for the saviors to come in. You are the guys and gals on the white horse. You’ve got to fix it yourself.
Have they come around?
The law in L.A. has been amended, due in large part to some people who championed what I’m doing, and the city seeing that this needs to happen. The ordinance is basically done; they’re just fine-tuning what edibles you can plant.
Do the neighbors respect the sidewalk gardens? I would worry about people stealing food or trashing them.
The bottom line is that if it’s on the street, like if you leave something on the curb, you are basically giving it away. So that’s what happens. But you can’t eat all the food you grow. It’s impossible. You’d be eating all day and all night.
As far as people respecting them, most do. You have some haters, but haters make you famous. That’s why you’re talking to me.
Usually when people see one of my gardens, it engages them. They say that they don’t see hummingbirds in their neighborhood, that they don’t see butterflies. If you build it, they will come. It turns out to be a sanctuary.
I’d imagine some folks don’t even recognize vegetables, because we are so removed from food farming.
They don’t, especially the way I plant. I don’t plant in rows. My gardens are more for aesthetics as far as look and appeal. I want beauty. I want color pops. I want different kinds of flowers, different smells and textures. A lot of people don’t see it as a vegetable garden, but I think vegetable gardens are for the most part not attractive. Nothing in nature is straight.
You are also working on a new project?
It’s a container café concept, with a café [called The Ron Finley Project] attached to a garden. I am putting the first one up on property that I have in South L.A., and then will scale them out for global domination. I am bringing healthy food to the community and showing people how to grow it and cook it. It will be a cafe where people can come to have lessons, to eat, to rent garden plots.
And people seem to be into your message too.
It’s needed, and it’s happening around the world, from North Africa to Newfoundland to Australia to England to South Florida. It’s happening everywhere, in every place, and in between. People want their food system back. People want to touch the soil. They want to get back to nature. This society, with computers and cell phones and LinkedIn and Facebook, it’s gotten us so far away from the food system that the system was hijacked. But food shouldn’t kill you, it should heal.