The Gangsta Gardener, known for beautifying public land, finally owns a piece of his own in South Los Angeles, CA
Drive through Santa Monica or Beverly Hills and there’s hummingbirds and butterflies dancing on the trees and flowers,” says Ron Finley, a native of South Los Angeles (formerly known as South Central LA). “But when you get to my hood, there’s only concrete, liquor stores, and convenience stores.” That is, with the exception of his own garden, where he stands in the shade of a 10-foot fern, peeling a Valencia orange.
Since he first rented the blue bungalow on Exposition Boulevard in 2010, Finley has managed to transform its barren property into a thriving community garden, creating a source of free organic produce for a neighborhood where obesity rates are said to be three times higher than those in West Los Angeles, and drawing admiration from such organic food giants as Newman’s Own, Clif Bar, and Annie’s Organic. “They always tell me, ‘You’re doing what we’re preaching,’” he says. “‘But you’re on the ground, literally.’”
So when Wells Fargo foreclosed on the house in 2016, and then sold it at auction to a real estate investment company that threatened him with eviction, Finley had powerful allies. “Nell Newman, Paul Newman’s daughter, called and said, ‘We’re not letting this happen,’” he remembers. “She called Bette Midler, who sent us $100,000.” Finley set up a GoFundMe account, and soon other contributions poured in, from CEO John Foraker of Annie’s Organic, from Dr. Bronner’s, and General Mills. After raising $550,000, he bought the property in April.
Today, Finley’s garden is thriving, as is the one he planted in 2011 on the strip of public land between his sidewalk and the curb. Back then, the sidewalk plot earned him a fine for gardening without a permit (the city has since forgiven him), and, subsequently, the nickname, Gangsta Gardener. “You walk on my side of the street, it’s 15 to 20 degrees cooler,” he says, gesturing at the long row of sunflowers fronting his property. “You’re seeing dragonflies. You’re changing the biodiversity of the street. Imagine if everyone did that.”
What’s he growing differently now that he’s a homeowner?
“Freedom,” he says. “I’m growing a lot of freedom.”