The Ron Finley Project, the nonprofit that drew international recognition for its community garden in South Los Angeles, is facing eviction from the land where founder Ron Finley first planted seeds in 2010.

After years of financial problems, the property on Exposition Boulevard was purchased at a foreclosure auction by real estate investment company Strategic Acquisitions for $379,003 last November, according to L.A. County records. But Finley, the longtime activist and self-described “gangsta gardener” who had been leasing the property, is not leaving his garden — and the community it serves — without a fight.

“They’re used to people caving in, and we’re not planning on caving in,” he told the Weekly. “What I try to do is the right thing, and I’m confident in that. You can take all you want, but you can’t take my soul.”

On Wednesday, Finley launched a petition aimed at convincing the new property owners to allow him to stay in the building and a gofundme page with a goal of raising $500,000 to buy back the property from its new owners.

But Tony Hershman, Strategic Acquisitions’ chief operating officer, said those actions may be too little too late. In an email to L.A. Weekly, he wrote that he offered to sell the building to Finley for $550,000 in late November and again through his lawyer last week, but that both offers went unanswered. He said that Finley has failed to make rental payments for the last two months, and his company is now suing to gain possession of the property through an unlawful detainer action. 

Ron Finley in his gangsta garden; Credit: Ryan Orange for LA Weekly

Ron Finley in his gangsta garden; Credit: Ryan Orange for LA Weekly

Finley isn’t fazed. He’s adamant about his right to stay in the building and the adjacent outdoor garden just across from the Expo Line’s Farmdale stop. “Will it disrupt what we’re doing? Hell yeah,” he said. “But it ain’t stopping us. What we’ve done is create something from absolutely nothing, and I mean, they’re not going to stop us.”

Finley, who grew up in the neighborhood, founded the Ron Finley Project and its “gangsta garden” as a means of transforming the community that he refers to as a “food prison,” a comment on its lack of healthy food options. His garden, which grows apples, bananas, oranges, kale, chard, sweet potatoes and other produce, is open to the public on a donation basis, where neighbors can pick what they need and pay what they can. To him, the project is about so much more than just food.

“What we do is change culture, because that’s what has to happen,” he said. “This is about keeping kids out of prison. This is about getting people off of diabetes, closing out some of the liquor stores. This is about having a healthy community.”

Residents in South Los Angeles have obesity and poverty rates more than three times higher than those in West Los Angeles, and the density of convenience stores in South L.A. is double that of the rest of L.A. County, according to county and independent statistics compiled by the L.A. Food Policy Council.

The Ron Finley Project seeks to change that, one seed at a time. It has attracted attention and support from city and environmental leaders and visitors from all over the world, who come to tour the space in the hopes of implementing something similar in their communities.

“The fact that I have people come to L.A. from Austria, Italy, Australia, and this is one of the first places that they come, it’s bizarre as hell to me,” Finley said. “Like, you came all the way from Italy to come to South Central to see this garden? But that lets me know how inspirational and powerful and important it is.”

The current battle to save his garden is not Finley’s first. In 2011, he was cited by the city for planting fruits and vegetables in a city-owned parkway without a permit. But he didn’t back down. He fought the citation in City Hall, and with support from Councilman Herb Wesson, who argued that the neighborhood was already deprived of fruits and vegetables, was allowed to keep growing his garden, the L.A. Times reported at the time.

But the future of his latest battle is less certain. The previous owner of the property refinanced it in 2007 and defaulted on the loan four years later, according to Hershman. “They have had over five years to deal with this before the bank finally foreclosed,” he wrote in an email. “Additionally, they always had enough equity to refinance the loan and pay off the defaulted loan. I cannot answer why they did not take this path to solve the problem.”

Finley and his executive assistant, Ashleigh Carter, maintain that the bank sold the property “in some shady business deal,” as Carter put it, and that the bank refused to work with the previous owner in order to modify the loan. Carter said she takes issue with Strategic Acquisitions being a corporation with no vested interest in the community “scooping down like vultures in a carcass” to buy property in a neighborhood that’s only recently started to gentrify, thanks in part to the recent extension of the Expo line, which runs just across the street from the property.

“Why all of a sudden when the complexion of the community changes, all of a sudden there’s infrastructure, all of a sudden there’s cafes and strollers and little babies?” Finley said. “Nothing’s changed but the complexion of the neighborhood. It’s the same building, just now it has awnings and tables outside. Why is that? Why all of a sudden is it OK to invest in this community?”

Vivian Torres, a field manager with Strategic Acquisitions, said Finley is running out of time to buy back the property, since the eviction process already began months ago. “At this point, to be honest with you, I don’t think they’re going to be able to buy the property unless they have the cash to buy it, but it has to basically be this week,” she said. Even then, she added, he would still need to be approved as an owner and close escrow.

Finley has yet to entertain the idea of moving to another location. Unlike other organizations forced to move because of an eviction, his would take a particular toll because it is so rooted, literally, in the soil of the property. “This needs to stay, just because of what it represents to the city of L.A., what it’s brought to South Central,” he said. “I’m not going to let this take the movement out. I’m not going to let this take what the Ron Finley Project has spread across the world.”

LA Weekly