A police helicopter circles above me as I park on the street. It’s not difficult to know which place is Ron Finley’s. Who else has banana trees, pregnant with ripening fruit and massive flowers, offering shade along the curb in South Central Los Angeles, California – a food desert better known for its entrenched poverty and fast food joints?
Everything is much cleaner than I expected. I’m parked beside new cars. The police helicopter whirls off into the distance. Ron Finley is standing out front surveying his plants. It’s clear that the neighborhood is changing. People who can’t afford Culver City and the Westside are moving in. A metro-rail less than a block away, which began service on April 28, 2012, makes it easy to commute.
Here in the thin strip of land between the street and the sidewalk, I could dig up a carrot, snap off a banana, or pluck and peel a fresh orange. If I were looking to purchase this produce in this food desert, I’d be out of luck. It would require at least a half hour drive. I’d have no problem getting a three-dollar Happy Meal. This is likely to change as the neighborhood gentrifies. But for now, Ron Finley’s hand-tooled garden is an oasis in the endless concrete.
Ron guides me into his hand-made reed gazebo to talk about what he has done here and why it’s so important. We sit on log stools. The decomposing leaves beneath our feet create a dark, rich soil that is piled up at least two inches higher than the rest of the neighborhood.
The grass that lines the neighbor’s walkways is clearly out of place in a city that has experienced a decade-deep drought. Why is watering grass more important than repainting the run-down schools? Ron’s soil is still wet beneath the leaves and rocks – naturally, with the magic of permaculture.
Before the Lexus folks started moving in, Ron Finley just wanted a little beauty in his life. He wanted to smell jasmine, see green and have some shade, instead of choking on exhaust fumes and scanning endless concrete under a relentless, blazing sun.
“You use what you have, what’s there,” Ron told me. “Be creative. Be resourceful.”
That’s Ron’s message: to help his neighbors and people in challenging conditions everywhere realize that soil is one of the richest resources in the world. “Life comes from soil,” Ron reminds us.
The first time Ron planted his garden in the road verge, the city forced him to tear everything out. He did, begrudgingly. However, a few years later, he planted again. And this time, when the city ticketed him, he fought the system. And won.
“When you put beauty in, you get beauty out,” Ron told me, as we sipped kombucha. This slice of paradise is narrow, but still beautiful. I’m hardly noticing the car that just parked, and is idling, inches from my face.
Just last night I heard We McDonald singing an old Billie Holiday standard: “God Bless the Child That’s Got Her Own.” That’s what has taken Ron Finley’s TED Talk to almost three million views. He did it on his own with a few inches of dirt between the sidewalk and the street.
So, what inspired Ron to fight the system that fined him for planting food instead of grass in front of his house? It was seeing the label “may be coated with shellac” on his tomatoes. Driving by countless diabetes clinics. Watching people have their limbs amputated. Noticing that the only businesses thriving in South Central L.A. were fast food joints, liquor stores and dialysis clinics. Drawing the connections between chronic disease, toxic food, institutionalized, drab schools and high incarceration rates.
“Hey!” Ron yells at the car that is still running its engine right next to us, tapping its window. I assume it’s so we don’t have to smell the gas fumes.
“Take it elsewhere!” Ron yells!
Where else would a lady and her customer be so hardened and oblivious as to pull up in front of Ron’s reed gazebo, with the car still running, to do their hasty business while we’re sitting there! Sitting in Ron Finley’s Eden, it’s easy to forget where you are. But it is still South Central, slowly gentrifying.
“Change your food, change your life,” Ron says. “We’re letting corporations dictate what we eat,” Ron continued. “This can be changed. If people look at what I’ve done with nothing, just imagine if we all did something.”
Where else in the sprawling concrete jungle that was clearly designs for cars, not people, can I taste food grown in the nutrient-rich soil that only comes from permaculture? Where else can I hold a flower from a banana tree in my hand? Who else is harvesting compost in South Central? Why isn’t everyone on his street following his lead? To Ron, that’s what should be happening. What he’s doing shouldn’t be special. It should be normal.
“I want to see the lights and the fireworks when the change happens,” Ron tells me. “If we fix this now, we get to celebrate together,” he states.
May we all see the possibilities in our own backyard this holiday season, and plant seeds that yield sustainable fruit in 2017.
God bless the child that’s got her own. And Ron Finley.