The Gangsta Gardener

Guerilla Community Transformation

Why would the cops try to arrest you for planting a carrot?

Ask Ron Finley, the Gangsta Gardener.

South Central Los Angeles is what’s often called a “food desert” – options for healthy eating, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, are hard to come by.

Fashion designer Ron Finley was sick of driving almost an hour to get produce for him and his kids. So one day in 2010, he walked out to the curb in front of his house and planted sunflowers, kale and pomegranates, creating a small city garden where there had just been a 150 foot long patch of dirt.

His friends and neighbors took notice, and it wasn’t long before Ron was working with them to plant their own plots.

But here’s the problem: the City of Los Angeles owns those patches of dirt, and the next year they issued Ron a citation for “overgrown vegetation.”

“They were gonna arrest me, they had an arrest warrant for me, you want to know why this shit is gangsta, that’s changing the paradigm. I don’t sleep on that. I don’t sleep about how this is dangerous.”

Ron refused to pay. He refused to back down. And his struggle with the city started getting attention beyond the neighborhood.

The LA Times wrote a column. It got picked up nationwide. And in 2013, the City Council voted to change the law, making curbside gardening legal.

That same year, Ron delivered a TED talk that has been viewed over three million times. It made him a worldwide celebrity, and he’s gone on to talk to communities and corporations in places as far off as Australia and Qatar.

None of this was part of the plan when he tilled that first curbside plot.

“It was organic. I didn’t plan to be doing what I was doing. It was real simple – beauty in, beauty out. People gravitate to beauty. People gravitate to something that’s positive, and not the norm.”

But food isn’t the end-all of Ron’s project. It’s a tool, a gateway for him to transform every element of our lives. Food is just a part of his grand design for upending the oppressive systems that we live in.

“People are dying from everything. From chemicals in the food, the schools, they’re dying, and all of that is by design. But we can change that. I’m a designer. That’s what I do.”

In addition to maintaining his own gardens and speaking around the world, Ron continues to lead workshops in his community to encourage others, especially young people, to take control over their food and the rest of their lives.

In 2016, Ron faced a new challenge – Wells Fargo foreclosed on the house he was renting, threatening everything he’d built. With the help of both some new celebrity friends like Paul Newman’s daughter Nell and others who had been inspired by his no-holds-barred approach to urban beautification, he raised $550,000 on GoFundMe to buy it himself.

Now the Ron Finley Project aims to bring self-determination and neighborhood beautification to urban spaces all over the world. And it all started with a patch of dirt in South Central.