Ron Finley is the self-described "Gangsta Gardener" who runs The Ron Finley Project at the corner of Exposition Blvd. and Chesapeake Ave., next to the Farmdale Expo Line station in South LA.
It stands out in a fairly arid part of town because its sidewalk is bursting with blooms, and then it has an amazing back yard -- an empty swimming pool is chock-full of pots of plants, many rescued from trash cans by Finley. Plants are also in old sinks, a wagon and anything else that catches Finley’s eye as a plant holder.
Finley grew up in South Central Los Angeles despairing at the area’s lack of fresh produce.
In 2010, he started planting vegetables and flowers in the curbside dirt strip next to his home. The City of Los Angeles cited him for planting in city-owned "parkways," the neglected dirt areas, without a permit.
He started a petition with fellow green activists, demanding the right to garden and grow food in his neighborhood. This led to an invite to give a TED Talk that gave him a big platform, and the city backed off.
In an interview with DnA that aired last month, Finley talked about his efforts to raise the money to buy the property back.
"My whole thing for the way I garden here and in the urban areas is not for production. It’s not for maximum yield. It's for beauty. Every sense in your body can be affected in the garden and that's what I want to do," he said.
The property where Finley lives and created the garden was sold to investment company Strategic Acquisitions, which wanted to redevelop the entire site. It was sold to them by the bank that repossessed the property.
The LA Weekly reports that the property’s former owner, Finley’s landlord, named Blanca de la Isla, filed a wrongful foreclosure lawsuit in January against Wells Fargo Bank and DLI Properties LLC, the company that bought the property after the bank foreclosed on it.
Meanwhile Finley set about raising funds to buy back the property from Strategic Acquisitions which bought it for $379,003.
Finley ran a successful crowdfunding campaign and received donations from some big names in the organic food industry, such as Nell Newman, the co-founder of Newman’s Own Organics, and John Foraker, the president of Annie’s Homegrown, and Patagonia, Bette Midler, New Hope Expo, Cliff Bar and a long list of donors.
Other brands that helped raise money include organic meat company Applegate Farms, the natural soap company Dr. Bronner’s and the LA-based almond milk and cold brew company Califia Farms.
His nonprofit, The Ron Finley Project, raised $550,000, which was enough to buy back the property. He made an offer on the property two weeks ago and closed escrow on Monday, according to Finley’s lawyer, Kaivan Harouni.
Finley made clear to me that this fight was always bigger than him or his garden. He sees it as a systemic issue, connected to gentrification, the foreclosure crisis that had a catastrophic effect on neighborhoods like his, as well as health issues like obesity and diabetes, and even the school-to-prison pipeline. He says, "it ain’t about food, it’s about people" and about giving people the power to design their own lives.
The Ron Finley Project is hosting "Da FUNction," a community event on June 24 at the Vermont Square Library, 1201 W. 48th St. Los Angeles, 90047 that will be a celebration and community festival. It will be open to the public.
Photo: Ron Finley outside his garden on Exposition Boulevard (Avishay Artsy)