FEBRUARY 7, 2016
Illustration by Brett Crawford.
All photographs by Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. All rights reserved.
OUTSIDE, IN RON FINLEY’S GARDEN, adjacent to the Metro Expo line, the sounds of the city come and go from somewhere behind a banana tree. Easily visible coming down Exposition, the garden is a virtual Eden of vegetables, fruits, and flowers along an urban concrete wasteland — the centerpiece of director Delila Vallot’s revealing documentary film, Can You Dig This, about the urban gardening movement in South Los Angeles, and the power of change through planting seeds.
Vallot first learned about Finley after the Los Angeles Times reported on his fight with the city, when officials sought to tear down the sidewalk garden he’d created in front of his house, on city property (a fight he eventually won: the laws have now been changed because of Finley’s action.)
“If you put beauty into a place that normally doesn’t have it,” Finley said in the film, “that’s a game changer.”
According to Josh Kun, author of To Live and Dine in L.A., Finley’s work is part of a larger movement in South LA as African Americans begin to reclaim their food, and their cultural heritage, through gardening.
“I think that’s it’s been in the last 10 years or maybe more, but certainly in the last 10 years, there’s been this really valuable movement to reclaim black southern food places to back before the industrialization of food, before African American diets became intrinsically linked to fast food,” he said recently at a book signing at Leimert Park’s Eso Won Bookstore. “That organic, home-grown vegetables, greens, slow-cooked meats — we gotta bring this back. Bring planting seeds back; food as families, as generations. That’s been a movement people in LA are certainly aware of, and that bleeds over into the activist realm where you have people like Ron Finley, probably the most famous of the food activists right now, where he has taken that idea into transforming public spaces and putting community gardens in the middle of traffic islands. He’s now fighting with the city to turn his empty swimming pool into a garden.”
Finley, dubbed the “gangsta gardener,” is, by his own account, an unlikely activist and the reluctant star among the film’s urban gardeners: 23-year-old former gang member, Mychael “Spicey” Evans, and 21-year-old orphan Kenya Johnson who find hope at the Compton Community Garden; former inmate Hosea Smith whose garden feeds his fellow residents at a halfway house; and eight-year-old Quimonie Lewis who oversees a garden at her home in the Avalon Gardens housing project — and this kid is totally gangsta about her garden.
Can You Dig This premiered last June at the Los Angeles Film Festival where it won the LA Muse Award; smaller cities screened the film through Gathr, a community-based distribution platform, with a national VOD release in December. Since then, Finley’s rally via the hashtag #PlantSomeShit has carried on from the film, and his TEDTalks have connected with neighborhood gardeners globally.
The film returns to theaters Sunday Feb. 7 at 3:15 p.m. and Monday Feb. 8 at 4 p.m. for a limited engagement during the Pan African Film Festival at the Rave Cinemas in Baldwin Hills, not far from Finley’s garden oasis.
Touring the 150-foot space, where he grows beets, carrots, artichokes, sweet potatoes, blackberries, raspberries, and fava beans below apple, fig, pear, and a variety of citrus trees, he stops on occasion to pick a leaf — Italian parsley, purple broccoli, nasturtiums, purple mustard greens — for me to sample.
“You could really come out here and nibble on stuff all day long,” I say.
“Yeah, that’s what I want to happen.” He pulls a couple of clovers from beneath a tree. “Try this.”
“Oooh, it’s sour!”
“You don’t taste the lemon.”
“I do. It tastes like a sour lemon?”
“You can even eat the stem. It grows everywhere, but we throw it away. I’d put it on a salad or something like that,” he says.
“Like any other herb.”
“Totally. And the flowers are really beautiful. And they’re everywhere. It’s a weed.”
“Oh, the stuff I pull out of my planters and discard.”
There are not so subtle reminders that the ills beyond the garden remain as cars careen around the corner; teens loud-talk as they make their way from school; a plane overhead spews burst of white chemtrails overhead.
“That’s what we really need to be worrying about,” Finley says, looking skyward.
Occasionally, a neighbor hollers over to greet Finley; he hollers back. “What this has brought me are conversations that I would never have had before in my life if it wasn’t here, and it’s beautiful. It’s not only changed my life, but a lot of other people’s lives, and changed people’s focus. Prostitutes. Drug addicts. Alcoholics. They’ll walk by here and they’ll express how this makes them feel.”
As if on cue, a man walks by and stops to chat a bit. His speech is slurry, but quick. His eyes bloodshot; inebriated. It’s just past noon. “Ron has a beautiful garden. A beautiful garden. I love his oranges.”
Then he yells, “I can’t find no tomatoes.”
“They not here yet,” Finley replies, as the man briskly makes his way down the street. Then, almost as quickly as he left, he returns handing Finley two crisp one dollar bills. “That’s for the oranges.”
Finley puts the money in his pocket. “Gratitude,” he says with a smile. “Some people put a couple of dollars in the mailbox. Then some people just come and destroy. Is it frustrating? Yeah it is! But you can’t let a couple of people ruin it for everybody. But it’s hard. You wait 75 days for a sunflower to grow and somebody comes by and breaks it just to break it. Just to destroy it.
“But you just saw an encounter,” he continues. “I wouldn’t have that encounter across the street,” where the browning grass sits pitifully along the barren sidewalk in the wake of Finley’s grand garden. “Ain’t gon’ happen.”
We take a seat on two stumps near the center of Finley’s garden. He hands me a Valencia orange, having managed to pull two from high atop the large leafy tree. It’s nearly picked clean of fruit.
Cutting through the skin, the fragrance releases; juice sprays through the air toward a large handmade web in the tree nearby. String connected by branches, and shaped almost like a heart, it’s decorated with old car keys, a toy dinosaur, a peace symbol, a sea shell, and a pod, among other kitschy things. It’s all part of the mission.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Is that a dream catcher on that tree?
RON FINLEY: Yeah.
I tell kids, if you got big ass dreams, you need a big ass dream catcher. But they say they don’t dream.
Kids are telling you they don’t dream?
Yeah, they don’t. They ain’t got nothin’ to dream for. Ain’t got nothin’ to dream about. And I’m like this shit’s free, dude. They just feel that fucked up. It’s like that old Richard Pryor joke about his wife taking him to court, and the judge tells him, “We want everything! Do you have any dreams? We want them, too?”
Do the trinkets represent your dreams?
What it represents here is everything; what you’re sitting on. It represents opportunity, not no fuckin’ hope. It’s like I tell people, “Keep your hope. You can’t do anything with hope.”
You can’t do anything with hope?
What can you do with hope? Hope isn’t tangible. I mean, you can do shit with opportunity. You can’t do nothin’ with hope but hope some shit happens. But opportunity, as you know, being a journalist, you’ve seen people make some shit happen. These kids, these people, they don’t have opportunity. Everybody got hope. But hope that: Damn, I hope they don’t foreclose on me; I hope I wake up. No, I’ve got the opportunity to change my damn life, and that’s what these represent to me.
I mean, this started for me as my meditation. So I’d come out here and play with these sticks. I don’t know if you ever did the Popsicle sticks in school where you would make’em into dreamcatchers, but this took me back to that. So I got to playing with these trees, and I didn’t want nothin’ tied. I just tried to do it with tension, and it looked nice and then one thing would move and it would go [makes an exploding noise] and it would just fly across the parkway. And then I’d start over. Tedious things like, just puzzles, that’s how it started with me, like a meditation, or a relaxation to get away from the bullshit that you deal with every day.
And the garden, did that begin as a meditation?
I got tired of driving to the Wilshire district, to Culver City to get food, and you realize that you’re on this track, and you’re like: Wow! What do I need to do to get what I need? And you’re not really thinking about it, you just do it. Once you stop and think: Why do I have to leave my neighborhood to do something that is a basic need that other people have? And then you go to the store in your neighborhood and you see tomatoes coated with shellac to preserve the freshness. That ain’t cool. I don’t want nothin’ that doesn’t mold, you know. [Laughs.] If it doesn’t mold then we got a problem.
When did it become activism?
I guess when I started it. The fact that I did it and got a warrant. That’s when it turned into activism. Oh, I get it, you give zero shits about somebody that left this toilet in front of my house but this tomato plant you’ve got a problem with. That’s somethin’ huh? That’s when it became one. But I guess quietly I’ve always been one. I just never called myself one.
You were described in the movie as a reluctant activist.
You’ve seen it?
I saw the movie in November prior to the VOD release.
Oh yeah, what did you think of it?
I planted some shit afterwards.
Yeah. I’d bought a package of live herbs during the holidays, and had some left over. So I cut some holes into a plastic cup, put that into a little flower pot, and sat it out on my balcony. Now I have fresh oregano whenever I want it.
Yes! My job is done. It’s that simple. Just imagine if everybody did that. A lot of people’ll see it and expand on it, like, “If I can grow that, I can grow this.”
Now I have to figure out what to do with this oregano that’s growing like crazy.
Is it? That’s beautiful. I love hearing that. Even with onions, you can start an onion like that. Or garlic. Garlic we’ve been taught has gone bad when the green’s coming out of it. That’s a whole ‘nother bulb of garlic. But we don’t see that, we see, “Ugh, that’s bad.” And I’m like, put that in the soil.
When Delila came to you, and asked you to be in the documentary, why did you want to do it?
I didn’t want to get involved. No. Leave me alone. I didn’t want this. I didn’t — what’s the word — I didn’t want to be bothered.
Too much attention?
Yeah. I mean, I like being stealth. I like doing my stuff behind closed doors, kinda like The Spook Who Sat by the Door [a 1973 film based on a book about the semi-autobiographical satirical story of a black man’s reaction to white ruling-class duplicity]. That poster’s hanging up in my house in several different places for a reason. I’ve had my own business, and had people thinking I’m the janitor. I’d be outside sweeping when I know I’m going to have an appointment, ‘cause I want to see what kind of reception I’d get: Am I talked down to? All kinds of stuff you can learn by clothes. I’m a fashion designer, so it’s all costumes. Everything we wear. It’s just costumes to make people think you’re legit. If you want to rob a place, the best way to go into the building is to wear a suit. It’s still the same person under the suit. But a lot of people will think they’re respectable because they’re in the suit. No, you’re still a dick.
What finally convinced you that you wanted to get involved with the film?
‘Cause they nagged the hell out of me. They got on my nerves.
How long did they pursue you?
It was a while. They came up with three or four different iterations of the plot they wanted to do, and the last one, they had put something together and said, “Ron, we put something together that we think you’ll really love,” and I did. They had put together a piece where, the stuff I talk about in my TED Talk, they had found people that fit that scenario. So they would have this piece from my TED, and then they would have this person, and I thought: “That was kind of brilliant.” And at first I was like, “How the hell’d you find these people?” So that’s when I got it. I was like, “Okay, you got me.” People think it’s about money. It wasn’t about no money. It ain’t no major money in the documentary business. [Casting agent] Reuben Cannon taught me that lesson.
But they wanted to tell the story, and it should be told and it has gone around the world, and because of my TED Talk, I get to speak around the world so I thought this would be just another platform to continue the message around the world.
What exactly has the response to the film been like?
Just like you. You saw it, and said, “Oh, I can go plant this.” Imagine people seeing it in Atlanta and seeing it in Boston — seeing it in all kinds of different cities and having the same kind effect. In Atlanta, they started their own #PlantSomeShit Day. I think they saw it on December 4 or 5, and by the 15th they were out planting stuff on parkways and in gardens and they sent us pictures. So it’s having that kind of effect. What more could somebody ask for than to inspire people to change their lives like that? So I’m pretty honored, and pretty — I can’t say saddened — but the fact that we’re so far gone that what I do is special. What I do should not be special. We feed ourselves, and that’s what people have done since the dawn of our existence was grow food. The fact that growing your own food is this, “Wow! That’s special.” Sometimes that bothers me.
It’s odd when you think LA was once the hub for small farms before the industrial food revolution.
The industrial everything. The industrial complex. The industrial prison complex, the industrial military complex — industrial everything that takes you away from yourself. It’s convenient. Yeah, it’s convenient, but that food is conveniently killin’ yo’ ass. It’s slow, but think about it. It would be a win-win if the stuff didn’t kill you. You go to a drive-through, talk into a box: “Can I have a super mac cheesy burrito sausage?” You drive 15 feet, and somebody hands you a box or a bag of stuff that’s supposed to be food. I don’t have to wash dishes. I don’t have to heat up no pots. I don’t have to do nothin’. And I can eat. But that’s what’s killin’ us. We’ve got to change that.
People ask me what I do. Because some people can’t figure out what exactly it is that I do.
What do you mean?
Well some people are like, “We haven’t figured out exactly what it is that you do.” I change culture. That’s what I do. You’ve seen all this stuff about me, read all these articles, and you can’t figure out what I do? I said inspiring people to change their lives and to design their own lives, you don’t get that? That doesn’t have any value? And I get that a lot from rich people who could help the cause, but they don’t quite understand and are looking for me to say some magic word so they can. But if you don’t understand, then it’s not for ya. ‘Cause people think it’s just this. That it’s just food. It’s about food. Food is down the line. I don’t grow food. I grow people, and hopefully they’ll grow food and that’s the catalyst to change.
I mean it is about healthy food and organic food, but to me it’s not the first thing. The thing is about people, and showing people that you can change your life, you can change your ecosystem, and you can draw them in with the beauty. What draws a humming bird to the pineapple sage or to the sunflower? It’s the beauty of it.
The terrible thing about a seed is that it never gets to see the beauty that it produces. The seed literally destroys itself to produce this beauty. It’s in the ground, and the beauty comes above the ground. So the seeds are sacrificing themselves for beauty, and so we can feed ourselves.
You’ve dubbed your home “HQ,” so it’s essentially now headquarters for the Ron Finley Project?
This is the epicenter. It’s where it all went down, and I want this to be a place for engagement, where people can learn; learn about soil, learn about our culture, learn about nature; but the first thing I teach people about nature is that we’re nature. We’re no different than the bumble bees, the birds, the bats. We’re nature. We decompose like a leaf does. That’s the beauty of compost, because it taught me that nothing ever dies. Think about it. If I take this [brown twigs and leaves] and I take this [green sprouts]. So I have brown, which is carbon, and I have green, which is nitrogen. Now I put these things together in a pile and they heat up. So how’s this dead. [He pulls away the leaves to expose a moist, rich soil.] If this is dead, how am I having all this life under here, less than two inches down? Look at what we have.
And there’s a worm.
Yeah, there’s everything down there. Even right here, there’s a multitude of organisms we can’t see. And there’s the ants. So how does this heat up to 150 degrees if it were dead. It’s energy. It doesn’t die. So what happens to us? That’s one of the first lessons. It’s funny the things that we are not taught. When I used to do personal training, I would ask: “What’s the most important thing to you?” How would you answer that?
The most important thing?
What is the most important thing to your life? Period.
See, it takes too long to answer, and it’s only one thing.
Now see that’s wrong. Because if you’ve seen people in disasters, they can live for days and days without water. Some people wind up drinking their urine, which is sterile so that’s cool you can do that.
Which is why water is so important.
But it’s not the single most important. Maybe to you.
Then what is?
Can I show you something?
[Finley leans over and grabs me around the neck, squeezing lightly.]
You’ll answer that right the next time. So, Janice, what is the single most important thing to your life?
Nobody ever says that. Don’t ever think about it. Why? Because you can’t see it. You can do without water. You can do without food. Some people can do without sex.
Well, now you’re just talking crazy, Mr. Finley.
Some! [Laughs.] But you cannot do without air. It’s not gonna happen. And it’s terrible that air doesn’t get the due that should be put on it. It doesn’t get its honor. We don’t give it the respect it should have.
Which is why the chemtrails in the sky concerns you.
Look at it! It’s still there. And look what’s happening. I’m not gon’ be no conspiracy theorist, but look it up. Why is it just sitting up there, and why is it spreading? You see how it’s spreading now? It looks like clouds now. It’ll change in a minute.
But what this represents to me is a lab of what we can do; what is possible with these spaces. I mean, you look here, and then you look over there. [He points across the street to a plain curbside with browning grass]. I mean, where would you want to be? I know where the birds want to be. I know where the butterflies want to be. I know where all the worms are. When people want shade. It’s here, rather than over there. And it really doesn’t cost that much more money. But why do we have to see that bullshit when we could be creating oxygen, creating canopy covers, protecting the air to make it better.
And the baskets and drawers that you use to plant in, is that simply decoration or does it have a purpose?
That’s a big thing of mine is repurposing. That’s the same thing with what you see going on in the garden. It’s the same thing with Mother Nature. A leaf falls for a reason in a particular season. It’s by design. Leaves are not debris. [He moves over to a basket container of leaves in dark mulchy matter.] See that’s premium South Central compost. That’s what’s happenin’ right here. [Laughs] Mother Nature is as gangsta as they get. Everything she produces goes back into the earth. There’s nothin’ that Mother Nature produces that’s waste.
You have a sign telling people not to pick the flowers. Do you not want people to come and harvest the vegetables and fruit?
I want people to come and take the stuff, but leave my flowers alone, especially with sunflowers because I save them for so many purposes. First of all, it remediates the soil; takes all the bad stuff out. If you look at a place like Fukushima, they have millions and millions of sunflowers planted because it heals the soul and takes all the bullshit out. Plus, with the sunflower, it grows and it’s beautiful. So you have that, you have the beauty, and you have people stopping that are in a neighborhood where you usually don’t see beauty like that, and they don’t think it’s real. Then you have the pollinators: the bees and the butterflies. The hummingbirds. And then you have the sunflower seeds — if the birds don’t eat’em all. [Laughs] And these are seeds you can eat, or you can plant.
I was reading an article recently in which it likened healthy eating and urban planting in the same context with civil action. Is it?
Yeah, and that’s sad. It should not be a big deal. What we do should be, “Eh! Your tomato ain’t shit, look at mine! You grow tomatoes. So. Look at mine!” It shouldn’t be that important. It shouldn’t be civil disobedience to grow food, to feed yourself, to break out of the system. It’s all about control. I tell people, I don’t care how rich you are, if you don’t have a hand in none of your food, you’re a slave. Period. And what we have as black people, we have a disdain for the soil because of our lineage back to slavery. This is beneath us. My thing is that this is where the gold is. The wealth of this country isn’t because of you, it’s because of the land you happened to work. My thing is to change culture. Just imagine for one second we owned the soil, and look at what you can do. You can have that big white house on the hill, too. That’s what I’m trying to do: change people’s perspective.
What it sounds like you’re talking about is economic development?
This is economic development. This is civil disobedience. This is gangsta. This is sustainable. This is life. Soil, to me, represents life. This is art. There’s a metaphor for everything in life in this soil.
What’s gangsta about planting seeds?
Well because my thing is, especially with kids and the media and these rap artists, a bunch of them ain’t gangsta, but they have kids thinking that’s the way to get through; to rob from people, to steal, to be misogynistic; to do the drugs and the alcohol, and to promote drugs and alcohol. To me that’s prison. What’s that gonna lead to. All that activity they talk about is gonna lead to confinement of some kind. In your brain. So you’re a kid and that’s all the messages you get about what’s gangsta. No, the soil is gansta. The shovel is gangsta. Building up your community is gangsta. Being educated — that shit’s gangsta. Changin’ a system is gangsta. You almost have to be an anarchist.
I’ll go back to The Spook Who Sat by the Door. I’m sitting here by the door, but I’m taking in all of these lessons that y’all have given me that you don’t even know you’ve given me ‘cause you think I’m the janitor. It speaks volumes of what they think your capacity is. That’s what I mean by stealth mode. Don’t let’em know what your capacity is. Ever. That’s gangsta.
Mother Theresa. That’s gangsta. That’s what should be gangsta. Not this system where they’re promoting these lyrics with these stories — half of ’em are fables anyway. We need to change that. We terrorize our own communities. We trash our own communities. You have people just throw trash out the window like it’s normal.
Like those cans and stuff tossed across the street.
Yeah, exactly. We live here. You live here. Why do I need to see that? Why would you come into your own community and trash it? People from Beverly Hills and other places aren’t coming into our communities and throwing trash in the street. We do that. You wanna live in a cesspool or you want to design it where it can be beautiful? These kids grow up thinking that’s the norm. I don’t get to see beautiful things. I don’t get to see beautiful flowers. I don’t get beautiful smells. So you grow up, and what are you going to think. Beauty is now foreign to you. So kids come by and tear down the sunflowers, and I’m like, “Is beauty so disturbing to you that you have to destroy it?” This is a social experiment right here, in all kinds of life: from art, from growing food, from interaction, from storytelling when you get people who can appreciate it.
Less than a decade since the city came after you for planting fruits and vegetables, now a key asset that policy makers are bringing to the new Stocker Trailhead next month will be community fruit trees, and further west in Culver City, the new Stone View Nature Center will have fruit groves and vegetable gardens like what you have here.
Are they? [He shakes his head with a laugh.] You know, a lot of people don’t want to give me credit for initiating a lot of this conversation. You know, I got the law changed here. This is legal now. I have people from the city and the county stop by. I have people from different agencies come and look and wonder and take notes, and it’s beautiful, and that’s what’s wonderful about what I do. I get communications from all over the world, from South Africa to North Korea on how this is impacting their lives. I’ve got pictures of kids from India from a father who says they call themselves gangsta gardeners, and they’re trying to get other gangstas in the neighborhood. What more can one truly ask for?
And these are 11 and 12 year olds so they get what I’m saying. They get that breaking shit down, and stealing and being high and being drunk, that’s prison. Not just physical, but mental. You have a kid in a faraway country who sees that, who knows the joy and the honor and responsibility of growing food, you can’t help but shape a better person because they know what life is. This garden will teach you what life is; if you take care of something, it can come back. Think about a mosaic: you take these little tiny broken pieces and you reframe it and it’s changed. That’s what this is all about, and that’s what neighborhoods need to be. And Kenya says something about that in the movie, something like, if these plants came to life in this bad environment, so can I; if they can grow and change, so can I. And that’s real.
Any final words on the film?
Go see it, then come out of the theater and go plant some shit. [Laughs.] Then send me a check, so I can help other people plant some shit.