“No one's ever told you you were the most precious, most valuable thing on this earth,” says Ron Finley, guerrilla gardener, political activist, artist and key steering committee member of the Destination Crenshaw public art and culture monument. “I want people to think about everything, about what they value,” he says. “People like to talk about underserved communities, but they're acting like it's not a choice. Let's be clear about this: To under-serve is a choice, it's by design.”
While Finley is not planting his famous community gardens within the purview of the Destination Crenshaw project, as he explained to L.A. Weekly, he brings the same unique perspective and civic moral compass to his work in the gardens into his work with the project's artists and its process of community engagement. “Everything is a choice,” he reiterates, “and everything around you should inspire you to beauty.”
For Finley, a large part of that inspiration is the freedom represented by tending your own land. But it's also about uplifting the overall health and well-being of the whole community through the cultivation of living plants and trees. This is a message the entire Destination Crenshaw team has heard loud and clear and is acting on, for example by engaging the rather epic landscape architecture and green design firm Studio MLA (of, among other efforts, the sweeping L.A. River redevelopment plans) to envision and deploy the extensive living parts of the mile-long open-air museum.
Landscape architect Anton Smith of Studio MLA also spoke with the Weekly, describing at length the multifaceted process of choosing and composing the plant life of the pocket parks, plazas and thoroughfares that feature prominently in the designs. Beyond aesthetics, his team's job is to factor in a striking and exuberantly Afrocentric palette, biome status and ecological sustainability. But speaking with Smith, it is apparent that this is still only one aspect of the deliberations. It turns out that landscapes and their plants can also tell a story, be an allegory, teach about history, embody community and express social and narrative themes whose roots, pardon the pun, go far deeper than conventional ideas about green space.
MLA president and founder Mia Lehrer says the studio's end goal is to “transform the city and to make it more livable; to create places that really resonate with the community by collaborating with like-minded professionals.” Whether it's about lighting, signage, art — “or trees, which,” she says, “do more than just look beautiful. They clean the air, they give us shade, they make a place.”
Smith explains the concept of urban forest, something Ron Finley speaks about as well. It's a lot of socioeconomic study and natural science, but the takeaway is that there are direct correlations among health, property value and overall quality of life when a neighborhood has more trees and gardens; it's just that simple. Part of what Studio MLA is up to is not only ameliorating the lack of green space in the city but unpacking and addressing the causes of that lack.
“There's a history that fascinates me from the American perspective of how space is created,” Smith says, “and never have I ever gotten to work on a project where these things all come together as part of the dialogue. We're all trained as landscape architects, urbanists, whatever you want to call it; we design spaces. But let's turn design on its head for a second, let's suspend what we know. All these other things about place-making and maybe even post-industrial colonialism, let's say it doesn't apply here for a second and we're going to reinvestigate what it means to create cultural space. To ask, what does that really mean and who's at the table and who's making decisions.”
Smith is proud of Studio MLA's stance as an advocate for having the community voice at the table. “Look at the history of how the segregation laws were practiced in South L.A.,” he says. “And why we have this condition with the poverty and the prevalent disinvestment that shaped it.” In 1939, federal housing policies implemented something called redlining, identifying zones that were considered “hazardous” areas to invest in. These areas also happened to have the greatest number of immigrant and minority populations. “It is fascinating,” says Smith, “to correlate how this institutional segregation created 80 years ago still has lasting effects in the way South L.A. neighborhoods have been developed along racial lines — and are now ironically susceptible to the economic pressures of gentrification.”
Smith sees what Ron Finley does in this context as well, calling those gardens a direct response to conditions that have been a problem for many years, and noting with obvious distress that urban forest in this community has been all but destroyed. Remember it was there that the space shuttle Endeavor come through on its way to its new Exposition Park home, wiping out all those beautiful old trees. Folks are still upset about that; it was very emotional for the community.
Metro is planning to plant more than 800 trees to make up for the arboreal massacre, and it seems that nearly a quarter of those are intended for within the Destination Crenshaw footprint. Smith tells me the design has “captured” those trees and shaped the choice of species to match the story MLA is only one part of telling. For example, the use of Canary Island pine, once prevalent here but in need of a comeback, is a tree that originated off the coast of Africa.
In small but mighty ways, each of these choices not only accomplishes reforestation and beautification but also narrates a story of the African diaspora.
“Plants,” Smith says, “have a diaspora, too.
“If you're going to talk about an unapologetically black project,” Smith adds, “you have to have an unapologetically black approach to the palette to some degree. And then it's really about the Mediterranean biome; the plant material that has come to California through the years has been taken from many regions around the world.” Like the African star grass, commonly called Bermuda grass, which was scattered all over the globe in the paths of the slave trade and is known for its unique ability to take root and thrive wherever its seeds land. This rhizome forms the key motif across the Destination Crenshaw architecture elements as well as the plantings.
Further lending to the narrative and Afrocentric design of this palette is the pink trumpet tree, which proliferates in Central and South America, and flowers in February — which happens to be during Black History Month. There are a huge number of trees and plants with African ancestry that can thrive here, like the coral tree, bird of paradise and forthnight lily. There are plants and trees known to bloom in late December, around Kwanzaa, and others that come to colorful life for Juneteenth. “I got the idea of a tribe of plants,” Smith says. “A collection of them where the majority will be flowering during February or December, as if these plants can respond to the celebratory aspects of the project, at the moments where black people come together and celebrate.”
It's important to Smith and his colleagues to know that the people who live and work there, along with the people who will experience the Destination Crenshaw mile as their first look at Los Angeles from the Metro train from the airport, can all look at this landscaping and understand that it's more than just shade trees and plants that look nice, but that there were choices being made that go deeper.
Another part of this is educating the public about what ecology and flora already exist here, drawing attention to certain species of plants and trees that already grow in our region. We have a lot of South African plants, for example, including the bird of paradise (which most people associate with Hawaii) and the December-flowering aloes. “The studio has a deliberate consciousness to mesh and marry what we consider to be indigenous to California and the larger biome that includes Baja,” Smith says, “with plants we know migrated here by many other means.” The plant-based allegorical framework for thinking about this as a metaphor for a diverse society, characterized by both root shock and an impulse to thrive, is hard to miss.
“This firm has a unique stance on community advocacy through design, so that's what led me to MLA, but as to how I got to California, that's another question, and you know I don't want to make this about me.” Too bad, though, because it's a good story. “So here's the twist. I'm from Canada,” Smith says. “So how does someone from Canada end up being so interested in what's happening in South L.A.? Why I came here is California was filled with dreams for me, like everyone else, and you chase your dreams.”
But as far as career choice in general and how that dovetails with what's happening with this particular project, Smith's childhood along Canada's magical Humber River was certainly a factor — as was his family's Afro-Caribbean heritage (Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago).
“One of the most palpable memories I have is breadfruit falling from a tree in Tobago. It's like this 20-pound fruit and there's this huge thud, like you notice it! I really wanted to make this not about me!” he laughs. “But my aunt's home was built on coral, which is very interesting and is a part of Tobago's landscape, that much of it is built inches above coral.” That, combined with his love of the woods back home in Canada and his talent for drawing and drafting, made landscape architecture less of a career and more of a calling, as it is for many of his colleagues. “The story might be different but you have to have a strong sense of community purpose, a strong sense of environmental justice, and a good design sense about you to be attracted to this profession. You have to love the work, otherwise it's work.
“You know there are so many questions about culture and inclusion and identity from the multiplicity of what blackness can be,” Smith continues. “Because there's not just one way to be black. We're all reaching to find each other in some way, especially through the trauma that's happened through physical space and the emotional body of this culture. Those that lived here through the generations have experienced all of those things. Now we get to talk about creating black space in the 21st century.”
Ron Finley, too, has described his gardening as its own kind of hybrid between form and function, saying that while healthy food is a huge part of the idea, “I don't plant for production. It's not how many pounds of carrots, it's how many people stopped what they were doing, got out of their car and took it in; noticed a hummingbird, noticed the beautiful flowers, noticed the smell. That's what I do.”
“What is a city for?” Finley asks. Smith might add, not only for what but for whom. “It's not for living, it's not for people,” says Finley. “Look at a freeway, look at an ant farm. Where are you going, what are you doing? You're here to work, you're not here to live. I say we can make our cities more people-centric, more humanist. People,” he says, “should be able to walk somewhere and feel joy.”
In other words, to stop and smell the flowers.