Ron Finley has been starting a renaissance of his own.
Having spent years as a designer of clothes and art, Ron started looking at the world in a different way. With a dearth of healthy foods available growing up in South Central LA, he saw a number of unused areas in his neighborhood as an opportunity.
Instead of these unclaimed spaces collecting trash, they could be harvesting fruits and vegetables. Gardening could not only provide a cheap source of fresh food, but also engage people in their own communities.
Little did he know urban gardening would lead to TED talks and recognition around the world, and earn him the moniker, “The Gangsta Gardener.”
Ron likewise has shaped his views of Los Angeles by riding around on two wheels. Cycling allows him the opportunity to explore and interact with the environment at more of a grassroots level.
We catch up with Ron to talk about beets, bikes and beyond.
Los Angeles is a big city. What impressions did you have of Los Angeles growing up?
Segregated. I grew up on Florence and Normandie. I discovered that as a teen getting off the bus at the at the wrong stop. Heading to Westwood to go see a movie and I thought I was in Disneyland. You’re talking to someone that’s seen all the riots that’s happened in LA. I’m not a new Jack.
Growing up, did you play sports in high school?
No. I didn’t play sports. Gang culture was evolving and I went to Trade School. I went to Trade Tech at night and studied tailoring when I was 15-16 years old. That was a big part of my life. I was in the fashion industry.
Even pools can be turned into gardens
How did your background in design influence the way you look at the city?
Everything is art and everything is architecture. We need to look at shit like this. These communities are by design. They are designed to be f***ed up. And right now, they are designed to kill you because people have these structures where you can’t get anything healthy in your neighborhood. Nothing. Cause that s***’s by design. You go to Brentwood, it’s not like that. Right now where we’re at, the county is built for cars, not people.
When you started to do gardening, did you start completely from scratch? Not even pick up book?
I thought of it as a petri dish. You look at the magic and alchemy in that. That has stayed with me my whole life. We’ve always had a garden at the house. I didn’t realize the effect my mom had. Everyone told me how much she loved gardening and I never remembered that. Back then I thought it was a chore, but when I look at it now, it’s art.
Isn’t it a lot of trial and error?
I don’t see it as such. You don’t grow anything. Mother nature grows it. You assist it. You’ve got trees with seeds that fall to the ground and the next thing you know you have a big friendly tree. What do you really do? What we really need to do is biomimicry and that’s replicating mother nature instead of trial and error. I don’t see it as labor. For me, I see it as meditation. It’s my solace. You think about what we’re really growing and we’re growing soil. We’re not growing food. If your soil is depleted and void of anything healthy, what do you think your plants are going to be? Because plants eat soil. They don’t just grow. That’s where their nutrients come from.
From a designer’s perspective, how is the process different for you as an artist and fashion designer? Do you approach it as that type of a problem?
It’s an artform for me. I look at everything as an artform. I don’t look at this garden as just food, I look at it as a way to change culture. Or bring culture back. It’s not even about food to me with this. It’s about letting people see the opportunity that’s in the soil. It’s the resources you’re walking on right underneath your feet and we don’t see it because you’re trained not to see it. You’re trained to fall in line. You’re trained to eat the convenient food that’s conveniently killing us. What I’m doing is bigger than food. Food is a little part of it.
Ron hanging at CicLAvia with good friend Tish Laemmle
How did cycling come into the picture for you?
I’ve ridden on bikes most of my life. I learned how to ride in elementary school. I always wanted a banana or orange peeler bike. I probably now have five bikes from a road bike to a tandem to a cruiser to a very, very expensive full carbon bike. We need to get the knowledge to people who are driving cars that we’re here and they need to look out for us. They need to consider us and not be a nuisance. I’m actually doing an event at Vermont Square Library on June 11th called DaFUNction. This event is about function and having fun. We’re supposed to get some of the first bikes they’re using for bike share for people to test out at the event.
What have you learned about the city by riding around on a bike?
It’s taught me a lot. The car culture doesn’t see us and it’s not built for us. A lot of times, people look at it as a nuisance. That we’re in their way. You see a different view on a bike you’ve never seen before. It’s totally different than being in a car. You can stop and you can visit. You can do a slow drive by. It’s taken me by a lot of nooks and crannies I’d never had known were in this city. A lot of the neighborhoods, streets and architecture, you get to see it differently.
Because of this movement, you’ve had the chance to travel across the world. What have you learned from these trips?
What we’ve managed to export is diobesity, which is what I call it. We’ve been able to change the food culture all across the world and that brings disease to foreign countries, not just our own. We’re giving the gift of death to everybody.
I’ve had gardens named after me in the UK because they’re taking it on. The UK is crazy, rabid fans. They want it bad. They’re realizing that we’re being terrorized by these food companies. And it’s not a black, white, brown, purple, green, yellow thing, it’s a people thing. If you don’t have a hand in your food, you’re a slave. Because what we’re getting with this commercially grown food are products that are not only killing us, but also the people working in the fields. Nobody thinks about these people fighting for a penny a pound more for picking tomatoes.
Ron will gladly talk about all his different bikes.
Can you tell me about your large collection of movie posters?
I have movie posters from around the world about black culture. Movie posters from the former Republic of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia or Italy on black films. It’s not just the ‘70s or the blaxploitation era. When you think about black films, you just go there because there were more of them made at that point, but there were black movies made in the early ‘20s.
Aren’t these posters also a reflection of our history or the way we depict ourselves?
It’s funny you should say that. It’s not the way we depict ourselves, it’s the way we were depicted. When you see these posters of black people, it’s this big gun. A lot of these depictions, we didn’t do them. That’s how they promoted it and that’s one of the things I called the art of commerce. This art was made for you to go into your pocket and buy a ticket. So what did they do to manipulate us to see this movie? That’s why my collection includes art from around the world. And believe me, it’s vast to compare the way we’re depicted in America.
Have you loaned these out to museums?
I have! If you go to Ron Finley’s Travels Through Blackness you can see a show we did in 2012 and we’re doing a show real soon at Cal State Dominguez Hills. We’re going to call it “Big Ass Posters,” because it’s going to be a bunch of big movie posters.
What do you think the future of LA looks like?
I don’t think we have to worry about the future of LA. We have to worry about the future of the world. Because if we keep on this path, there ain’t going to be no LA. There ain’t going to be no world! Do I see a future? Yes, but we have to lose a lot of this bureaucratic situation with the water. It didn’t have to be as bad as it is. It’s because we didn’t do nothing about it. So now, we all suffer. It’s from the agriculture industry not taking responsibility and blaming it on the government. Mother nature always wins. She’s like the house in Vegas. I’m not betting against it. I want to see a bright future. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.