Renegade gardener Ron Finley started a worldwide urban garden revolution by planting a food forest on a vacant lot in South Central LA seven years ago. His “Gangsta Garden” has since become a model for creating sustainable community gardens in urban food deserts. He and his fellow gardeners are about to get evicted by real estate developers. Sign the petition and donate to save a little piece of paradise in an otherwise grim concrete jungle.
Transforming Food “Prisons” into Urban Gardens of Eden
Ron Finley lives in South Central Los Angeles – a neighborhood that used to consist almost solely of liquor stores, fast-food restaurants and vacant lots. South Central is known as a food desert – or, in Finley’s words, a food prison – a geographic area where there are no sources of healthy food. No groceries stores, no healthy restaurants, no farms, no CSAs.
In his famous 2013 Ted Talk Finley calls South Central “the home of the drive-thru and the drive-by. Funny thing is the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys.”
The obesity rate in his neighborhood is 5 times higher than that of Beverly hills, only 8 miles away. It’s a place where “wheelchairs are bought and sold like used cars” and “dialysis centers pop up like Starbucks,” Finley says.
“I got tired of driving 45 minutes round trip to get an apple that wasn’t impregnated with pesticides, so I planted a food forest in front of my house,” Finley said.
He started by landscaping the 150- by 10-foot strip of weeds along the sidewalk, which is owned by the city, but expected to be maintained by the residents.
“So I was like cool, I can do whatever the hell I want,” Finley said. “Since this is my responsibility and I have to maintain it, this is how I decided to maintain it.”
“People asked me ‘aren’t you afraid people are going to steal your food?’ I said ‘hell no I ain’t afraid. I want them to take it. That’s why it’s on the street.'”
Eventually Finley and his crew of volunteers expanded the garden to a vacant lot across the street. With 26 square acres of vacant lots, the city of Los Angeles owns more vacant space than any city in the country.
“The garden was beautiful,” Finley said teary eyed, “and then someone complained.”
The city threatened him to remove the garden and put out a warrant for his arrest.
The LA Times picked up the story, which prompted a petition, which prompted the city to change its zoning laws. The garden grew and thrived.
In the last 7 years, the Gangsta Garden has served an educational center for local schools and has been studied by universities around the world (including Harvard and MIT) as a model for transforming urban food deserts.
Finley and a group of volunteers now help South Central residents convert their front lawns into edible gardens. They also set up fruit and vegetable gardens at homeless centers throughout the city.
Even after all its success, Gangsta Garden is once again under attack and needs our help more than ever.
In recent years, South Central has been renamed South Los Angeles, in an attempt to give the neighborhood a new image. The neighborhood is becoming gentrified as the city population grows and real estate values go up.
In 2011, the owner of the property on which the Gangsta Garden and the Ron Finley Project headquarters now sit defaulted on his loan. But over the past few years – since the garden became a success – the owner has been battling the bank for a loan modification that would allow the project to continue and expand. But the bank refused, foreclosed on the property in November, and sold it to a real estate corporation called Strategic Acquistions, Inc., in what Finley calls “a shady business deal.”
Strategic Acquistions is now offering to sell the property back to the Ron Finley Project for $550,000, almost twice as much as they “acquired” it for two months ago, but said they have about a week to come up with the money in cash before they evict the gardeners and develop the land, the LA Weekly reported a few days ago.
“Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” Finley said in the Ted Talk. It’s “the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do in the inner city.”
“I see kids of color that want to work, but they’re on this track – that’s designed for them – that leads to nowhere. I see this opportunity to train these kids to take over their communities and have a sustainable life.”
“I refuse to be a part of this reality that was manufactured for me, so I manufactured my own reality. I’m an artist. Gardening is my grafitti. They beautify walls. I beautify sidewalks and parkways. I use the soil like it’s a piece of cloth.”
“I want us all to become ecolutionary. I want us all to become gangsta gardeners. I want to flip the script on what gangsta is. If you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta. Let your shovel be your weapon.”
Watch the documentary Can You Dig This about Ron Finley’s inspiring work: