Illustration by Lauren Tamaki Ron Finley, a.k.a. the “gangster gardener,” has a renegade approach to counteracting obesity and fast-food...
Illustration by Lauren Tamaki
Ron Finley, a.k.a. the “gangster gardener,” has a renegade approach to counteracting obesity and fast-food dependency: He takes over vacant or underused lots and uses them for urban farming. With aphorisms like “Drive-thrus are killing more people than drive-bys” and “Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” he is an inspiration to anyone who thinks hard about the problem of food deserts, where access to fresh ingredients barely exists.
Spend an afternoon with Finley in South Central Los Angeles, as I did recently, and you’ll understand the magic of his gospel, “Plant Some Shit.” We were meeting about a plan he had to convert a shipping container on an empty lot into a café that would serve dishes using the fruits and vegetables grown in the immediate vicinity. These impromptu powwows aren’t unusual for Finley. He regularly holds court in the garden on the curbside just outside his home—the very strip of land that spurred his identity shift from fashion designer to guerrilla-gardening guru. (After receiving a ticket for planting arugula and other edibles on his parkway—L.A.-speak for curb—he successfully fought the city to have the law changed.) As we wandered among giant sunflower stalks that I later found out were planted in memory of his friend (former NBA player) Robert Horry’s late daughter, Finley interrupted our conversation every few minutes to have me taste feathery but potent celery leaves or crack open a bursting purple fig (fig naysayers: Try a fresh one off a tree).
Eventually, we sat on a couple of old tree trunks facing the street amid overgrown pumpkin patches and fragrant lavender bushes. Passersby of all ages and races leaned out of their car windows and, amazed by this tiny, teeming urban forest, waved and shouted things like “Yo, sweet garden!” I felt like a celebrity just sitting there.
People are drawn to Finley not just because he says things like “If kids grow kale, they eat kale,” but because he’s a visionary who sees a universe of potential on even the tiny strip of green between the sidewalk and the curb. He has already hosted a bunch of grassroots dig-ins where anyone can get his or her hands dirty. And through partnerships with the city of Los Angeles, and with the support of community organizations, foundations, and corporate sponsorships, Finley will soon be bringing together kids and adults to plant food forests in vacant or underused lots.
It’s a vision that can be translated to other inner cities, too. You don’t need much more than a shovel, a few seeds, and some imagination.
Lara Rabinovitch is the food editor of GOOD.
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