One morning Ron Finley woke up to an unusual sight: A couple, with coffee cups in hand, was sitting on his front lawn and taking in the view.
In fairness to the pair, it isn't just any lawn. Right where the Expo light-rail line glides through South Central, near miles of gray stacked concrete, never-ending telephone cables and a neatly packed mix of stucco and shingled-roof bungalows with faded green lawns, Finley has created an urban oasis. There are alpine strawberries, rosemary, kale, fig and banana trees, and enough bees and hummingbirds to feel miles from L.A.
]From this narrow, 10-foot lot, Finley has launched an international “eco-lution,” thanks to a wildly popular TED Talk on guerrilla gardening. “We need to flip the script on what it means to be gangsta,” Finley told his audience. “If you ain't a gardener, you ain't a gangsta.”
When the video went viral, everything changed.
One minute Finley found himself on The Russell Brand Show; the next he was hanging out with Bette Midler in Hawaii. Celebrated chef Alice Waters knocked on his door – a thought so surreal it still makes him laugh. Even a bus full of students from Harvard showed up this year.
“I told them, 'Some black guy put some seeds in the ground in the 'hood, and all of a sudden you white folks from Harvard come. This is an amazing world we live in,'?” he says, sitting on a log he fashioned into a bench in the middle of his fragrant, overflowing garden – his version, he says, of “street art.”
Finley declines to give his age but is tall and fit. When he speaks, his voice is slow but steady; people listen. When he laughs, you want to laugh, too.
Finley has brought much-needed attention to an oft-neglected part of the city. Though South Central is plagued by lingering misconceptions, one fact remains true: It's a food desert, or, as Finley calls it, a food prison, because you have to escape to find healthy things to eat. The immediate area's sole supermarket closed last year.
It's why, four years ago, he turned his yard into a garden.
“I got tired of trying to find health food in the neighborhood,” he says. “If someone wants prescription drugs or liquor, they're plentiful, but to get an organic apple? That was a needle in a haystack.”
A fashion designer whose work has graced the racks at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, Finley is all about initiative. He created his fashion line, DropDead Collexion, because he couldn't find clothes that fit the way he wanted them to. After teaching himself to sew, he began offering unique, custom-tailored sportswear to upscale department stores and celebrity and professional athletes.
His TED Talk came about because someone with the nonprofit organization spotted Finley in a YouTube video about his “food forest” and reached out. Finley soon found himself on TED's stage in Vancouver and later Long Beach.
He insists the movement is about more than just gardening.
“I don't grow food, I grow people,” he says. “And food just happens to be a byproduct of growing people, where you're showing people how to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining and how to be creative.”
He's spread his gospel to the United Kingdom, Greece, New Zealand, even Qatar. But the South L.A. native hasn't forgotten his hometown. He recently planted sunflowers and purple artichokes to brighten the view of light-rail passengers.
“I thought the purple with the yellow would look beautiful for people passing by,” he says. “It takes people out of their space for a minute, puts them somewhere else.”