Urban Gardening: An Appleseed With Attitude
By DAVID HOCHMAN
Ron Finley was home by the pool recently when his thoughts once again turned to dirt. “People need to realize how powerful the transformation of soil can be,” he said, with a hint of evangelism. “We’ve gotten so far away from our food source. It’s been hijacked from us. But if you get soil, plant something in it and water it, you can feed yourself. It’s that simple.”
Mr. Finley’s two-story house in South Los Angeles used to be headquarters for a swimming school but the pool was drained long ago to make way for greener dreams. Potted cactuses, bags of organic fertilizer and gardening equipment cluttered the shallow end. Graffiti emblazoned its once-white walls. Old shopping carts planted with succulents lined the pool’s edge.
“We’re going to do a parade with a hundred of these to show you can repurpose the carts instead of just junking them,” he said.
It was early afternoon and Mr. Finley, who is tall, extroverted and disinclined to give his age (he has two sons in their 20s), had been up since dawn dealing with e-mails, invitations and other byproducts of what he called “the TED effect.” Last winter at TED, the annual ideas confab in Long Beach, his rousing 10-minute talk about guerrilla gardening in low-income neighborhoods was the hug-your-neighbor presentation of the week, and Mr. Finley was suddenly the man to meet.
“I should have brought a stripper pole and had people throw money at me,” said Mr. Finley, who juggles jobs as a fitness trainer and fashion designer to support his passion for gardening. He does not receive a salary for his work at L.A. Green Grounds, the volunteer organization he helped found three years ago to install vegetable gardens in vacant lots and sidewalk medians in blighted areas.
TED was a world apart. “Sergey Brin from Google was standing there clapping,” he said, “Benedikt Taschen was inviting me to his Hollywood parties and Goldie Hawn wanted to say hi and kiss me. I kept thinking, what am I doing here?”
Since then, Mr. Finley has been thrust into the unlikely role of pavement-pounding Johnny Appleseed. His talk has received almost 900,000 views on TED’s Web site and his message that edible gardens are the antidote to inner-city health issues, poverty and gang violence (“if you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta,” he told the crowd) has gone supernova.
The talk show host Carson Daly, the actress Rashida Jones and the celebrated Danish chef René Redzepi were among hundreds of new admirers issuing shout-outs on Twitter.
Alice Waters stopped by Mr. Finley’s house, Russell Brand put him on his late-night talk show, and corporations like Reebok, Disney, Stihl and Toms Shoes had collaboration ideas. A graduate student asked to write a dissertation about Mr. Finley, who, to his credit, has kept an eyebrow arched over his newfound fame.
“All the attention in the world won’t do my dishes,” he said.
“Ron is compelling, funny and completely authentic in his quest to redefine what’s possible in areas where there’s no nature to be seen,” said Chris Anderson, the TED curator who helped select Mr. Finley as one of 34 speakers discovered during a worldwide talent search that drew thousands of applicants last year. “He takes on the depressing narrative that our inner cities are irretrievably decaying. Watching him fight back rewires your worldview.”
Mr. Finley, who grew up with seven siblings near the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, where the 1992 Los Angeles riots began, aligns more with graffiti artists like Risk and Retna, both friends of Mr. Finley’s, than with English horticulturalists of yore. Neat rows of zucchini are for grandmas. His gardens have spirals, color, fragrance and curves, and, to him, soil is sensuous. “How much more sexy can it get than you eating food that you grew?” Mr. Finley asked.
In a city where an elite few fuss over $13 plates of escarole wedges, too many others eat at 98-cent stores and drive-throughs or go hungry altogether. Mr. Finley estimates that the City of Los Angeles owns 26 square miles of vacant lots, an area equivalent to 20 Central Parks, with enough space for 724,838,400 tomato plants.
His radical fix is to take back that land and plant it, even if it’s the skinny strip between concrete and curb.
It was the barren 150-by-10-foot median outside Mr. Finley’s house that inspired his first act of crab grass defiance. In 2010, he planted a sidewalk garden to reduce grocery expenses and to avoid the 45-minute round-trip to Whole Foods.
“I wanted a carrot without toxic ingredients I didn’t know how to spell,” he said.
A few months later, neighbors were gawking in delight at the sight of pumpkins, peppers, sunflowers, kale and corn in an area better known for hubcap shops. Late one night, Mr. Finley, who is a single father, noticed a mother and daughter sneaking food from his garden. He conceived L.A. Green Grounds as a way to share the abundance with people like them.
The city was less magnanimous. As do other metropolitan areas, Los Angeles owns the “parkways” that run alongside the curb, and the Bureau of Street Services cited Mr. Finley for gardening on his median without the required $400 permit.
Outraged, he and a band of green-thumbed activists petitioned a member of the City Council, who convinced the city to back off.
“People in my neighborhood are so disconnected from the fresh food supply that kids don’t know an eggplant from a sweet potato,” Mr. Finley said. “We have to show them how to get grounded in the truest sense of the word.”
That missionary zeal got Mr. Finley noticed by Jesse Dylan, a filmmaker whose company made a short video about the gardener’s City Hall battle. It helped that Mr. Finley is a magnetic character. He motors around town in a three-wheeled Can-Am Spyder roadster, often dressed in the couture garments he designs for his clothing company, the Dropdead Collexion. His storehouse of African-American entertainment memorabilia is considered one of the country’s most impressive, at least by Mr. Finley.
“Ron’s got a deep and feisty spirit,” Mr. Dylan said. “He’s a modern Walt Whitman with attitude.”
On a sparkling Saturday morning in March, Mr. Finley was overseeing a “dig-in” in Baldwin Hills with around 20 volunteers from L.A. Green Grounds. “We’re usually begging people, but this time we had 300 requests,” he said.
After a few hours of working with donated shovels, mulch and seedlings, the team transformed a backyard tangle of weeds and pale grass into an outdoor salad bar offering Japanese eggplant, black tomatoes, Swiss chard, red kale, dragon kale and plum trees. It was organic proof of Mr. Finley’s second most indelible line from TED, that “growing your own food is like printing your own money.” (His most memorable line is not suitable for printing here.)
Mr. Finley now faces the challenge of living up to the hype. “The world is behind Ron, and it’s wonderful that his efforts and instincts intersect with latent support,” said Ben Goldhirsh, a co-founder and chief executive of GOOD, a publishing and marketing business that promotes social causes, and whose Goldhirsh Foundation plans to give Mr. Finley a grant. “The question is how to convert that energy into outcomes. Ron’s got a lot of energy and ability. It’s up to him whether he can harness that for the long slog.”
With a shovel in one hand and a cellphone full of new messages in the other, Mr. Finley appeared to have as many plans as there are seeds in the new garden.
“I want to plant entire blocks of vegetable beds,” he said, back in preacher mode. “I want to turn shipping containers into healthy cafes where customers can pick their salad and juice off the trees. I want our inner-city churches to become ministries of health instead of places that serve up fried, fattening foods. I want to clean up my yard, my street and my ’hood.”
The neighbors are certainly responding. In April, a local dialysis clinic pictured in his PowerPoint slide show at TED wrote to say it had more than 200 volunteers ready to serve Mr. Finley’s cause. “It’s definitely a start,” he said. “Although the kind of support this community needs might eventually put them out of business.”
If nothing else, Mr. Finley hopes to use his moment in the spotlight to give the next generation an alternative. “I wish,” he said, “somebody had told me, ‘don’t go down that street,’ or ‘find yourself a mentor,’ so that’s a role I’m trying to play.”
The future he envisions is full of shovels, not guns, and mint and marjoram instead of drugs.
“I saw a kid walking down the street listening to music when he came face to face with one of my giant Russian Mammoth sunflowers,” Mr. Finley said. “He said, ‘Yo, is that real?’ ”
“He thought it was a prop or something. That’s what I want on my streets. Flowers so big and magnificent, they’ll blow a kid’s mind.”