The Ron Finley Project, the beloved South L.A. community garden that braved a months-long court battle after being threatened with eviction earlier this year, is keeping its roots firmly planted on Exposition Boulevard.
Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign and donations from some of the biggest names in the organic food industry, the nonprofit raised $550,000 and bought back the property from the real estate development company that purchased it for $379,003 at a foreclosure auction in November.
“We went to battle with someone who had more money, more resources, more everything than we had, and still we rise, and that’s what this is about,” says Ron Finley, the outspoken community activist and so-called gangster gardener at the helm of his namesake nonprofit. “People need to know, fuck how much money somebody’s got. If you got right on your side, ride it out. See what happens.”
The Ron Finley Project made an offer on the property two weeks ago and closed escrow on Monday, according to the residential purchase agreement sent to L.A. Weekly by Finley’s lawyer, Kaivan Harouni. The sale was part of a settlement agreement in a wrongful foreclosure lawsuit filed in January by Finley’s former landlord and the property’s previous owner, Blanca De La Isla, against Wells Fargo Bank and DLI Properties LLC, the company that bought the property after the bank foreclosed on it.
In the lawsuit, De La Isla alleges that Wells Fargo wrongly advised her to apply for a loan modification without considering her financial situation and without offering anything in writing to confirm her application or explain the process. Unable to make payments on the loan, she alleges that Wells Fargo promised her she would not lose the property — then sold it to DLI Properties at a foreclosure auction about six months later without her knowledge. Around the same time, DLI Properties filed an unlawful detainer action against De La Isla and Finley in an attempt to evict them from the property. DLI Properties did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“Gardens right now are under threat, and a lot of people don’t see the value in having gardens in spaces,” Finley says. “This is about me showing [the community] the lessons about where food comes from, the alchemy and magic of the teeny tiny seed.”
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In the last several months, the Ron Finley Project received support from an army of philanthropists and advocates including Nell Newman, the co-founder of Newman’s Own Organics, whom Finley calls “one of our angels,” and John Foraker, the president of Annie’s Homegrown, who personally contributed $50,000 to the fundraising campaign, according to a call-to-action blog post he published in March. Other brands that contributed to fundraising efforts include organic meat company Applegate Farms, the California-born natural soap company Dr. Bronner’s and Califia Farms, the L.A.-based purveyor of almond milks and cold-brew coffees, according to Finley, who credits them largely with helping the campaign to reach its goal.
“Ron’s story showcases the terrible impact of real estate foreclosures in communities like this,” Foraker wrote in another blog post last week after he learned Finley had won his legal battle. “These events shatter lives, break up families and disrupt communities in ways that are unimaginable to most people. Fortunately, Ron was able to face that threat bravely and win.”
For Finley, that win is particularly sweet because he sees his project as being more than just about food or gardening. To him, it’s also planting the seeds of a revolution in which citizens have the freedom to control their means of production and a choice to grow healthy food in food-desert neighborhoods like some of those in his native South L.A.
“This is bigger than my garden. This is bigger than me, period. This problem is systemic,” he says. “It’s all kinds of things from gentrification to food injustice to just a lack of green spaces in certain neighborhoods, and all that is by design. What we’re here to do is change the design.”