SXSWorld November 2013


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Meet Ron Finley, the Accidental Urban Gardening Activist by Linda Laban R on Finley never expected to be called a gardener, let alone heralded as the "guerrilla gardener of South Central L.A.," as one newspaper article dubbed him. "Hell no!" Finley exclaims from his home in Los Angeles, California. "I'm a fashion designer. What do I know about gardening? I actually prefer the term gangsta gardener though," he adds with one of his frequent hearty laughs. It turns out that he knows quite a bit about gardening, food production, healthy eating and social revolution. He just didn't realize it until he inadvertently started a grassroots eco movement right in his backyard. Actually, it was in front of his yard and began when he looked out of his window and saw an ugly wasted space. In L.A., it's called a parkway — the strip of "city" land maintained by the taxpayer — and he decided to plant some vegetables on his patch. Before he knew it, the City of Los Angeles cited him for gardening without a permit and ordered him to pull up his plants. He was shocked, but complied. "A neighbor had called the city and complained. I didn't know I needed a permit to grow tomatoes in front of my house," he groans. "I didn't know I was doing anything wrong, but I went ahead and tore it up." However, it made no sense to him. How could his growing food be illegal? How could tending a barren piece of land, one of many all around him, be wrong? He became angry and determined that what he did — planting vegetables and growing food, not littering — was not only right, but also within his rights. So, he planted a second garden: "I was looking at the useless, ugly space and thought, this is ridiculous. They can't tell me not to grow food. Let them sue me," says Finley. Again, the city sent its legal papers, but Finley's reply was different this time. He refused to dig up his plants. Instead, he gathered support from like-minded people, got a petition going on, and involved sympathetic local media who relished the story. Instead of fighting, the city backed down and even reversed its attitude, commending Finley's garden and adopting it as a program. The greening of Los Angeles had begun, and some vacant lots and wasted land were set to become community gardens. Everyone was happy, right? However, Finley does not yet see a fairytale ending. Being the toast 10 SXSWORLD / NOVEMBER 2013 du jour of the eco movement and gaining recognition, and even his personal victory over the city, are not enough. He sees more of the same with a government body again taking control of people's food and lives, and these are things that should be in the hands of citizens. "I don't want the focus to be on my little garden. This is bigger than me planting vegetables in front of my house. I want people to focus on their cities and plant vegetables and fruit in every vacant lot in America. Maybe all over the world," he laughs. "I want to educate people on what food is, that it doesn't come wrapped in plastic, but from the earth." Like many grassroots activists, he does not see winning one battle as victory. He could lap up the spotlight and use it to promote his fashion business, which he doesn't even mention by name as we chat. But the biggest change so far has been within himself and how he lives his life. For him, there's no turning back, it's all common sense: local food production means lessening the carbon footprint; eating nutritious Ron Finley fresh food means aiding a health system that can't cope with an increasing population. He hopes that not only will people become empowered by the act of working with nature to grow food, but that it will connect people to their environment. Healthy plants need healthy soil, after all. "If I stopped now, just because the city agrees with me, then I would miss a great opportunity for real change," he says. So he is using the mainstream acceptance he has gained to spur wider change. Finley is well aware that he is challenging bigger guns than those wielded by the City of Los Angeles. He, like many individuals and grassroots organizations promoting fresh local foods, is attempting to undo a century of corporate hegemony on food production. Finley sees his gains thus far merely as a truce after he won the first battle in an urban agrarian revolution. "Did you say revolution or evolution?" he asks and then chuckles mischievously. "This is about our lives; that's far too big to leave to someone else. I'm thankful for that neighbor who complained to the city about my little garden. You have to turn the haters into a positive force. Without the hater, it would have just been a few tomato plants on the sidewalk. Now it's a movement to change people's lives in a real, fundamental way." n

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