A simple act of rebellion against a community’s lack of access to healthy food sparked an urban revolution, when Ron Finley planted food on unused land in Los Angeles.
So called ‘gangsta gardener’ Finley lives in South Central LA, where he says 'drive throughs are killing more people than the drive bys'.
So armed with a spade, some soil and seeds he turned the curb side in front of his house into an edible garden.
His actions caught the unwanted attention of the city council - but it didn't stop him, and he managed eventually to get a law change.
Today his belief that urban gardens build communities has blossomed.
His story, and of other unlikely gardeners from impoverished South LA neighbourhoods, is the subject of a documentary Can You Dig This?
Finley says only 8 percent of black Americans live in a community with one or more grocery stores, compared with 31 percent of other Americans and this limits access to fresh food.
He’s calling on people to get together and grow their own food in their own neighbourhoods.
“If you put beauty in you’re gonna get beauty out… to me these communities are by design, they don’t have no beauty.”
He says if people are walking around and can see beauty around them, it will change their outlook on the world.
“But just imagine, you see trash, you see violence, you know what is your life going to be?”
It was a tomato that triggered Finley’s interest in guerrilla gardening.
“I went to the store and it said the tomato had shellac on it to preserve tomato.”
Which reminded him of preserving wood.
“I guess that was the pitchfork in the soil for me.
“Of course if you’re putting chemicals in food, it’s going to have some sort of adverse effect on our bodies.”
He said he had seen prosperity and health in some neighbourhoods, but not all.
“A lot of these other neighbourhoods, especially here in the states if it’s black, brown or red, there’s nobody really advocating for any kind of healthy food… or healthy environments.”
He says that’s often forgotten.
“They don’t think about the environment, if there’s violence everywhere, if there’s blight everywhere, it affects your mental health.”
The first time Finley began planting in front of his house he was issued a warrant for his arrest and had to appear in court. But he persisted and started planting more - even banana trees.
He was told a second time he had to remove the garden but he refused.
Eventually the law was changed, and Los Angeleans are now able to plant on curbs or parkways.
But he says the law change is unknown to many people.
“It’s on the books but if nobody really knows about it, what difference does it make?”
Finley says his garden created a whole ecosystem, complete with bees and geckos he hadn’t seen in the area in 20 years.
“I planted it and they came.”
The gardens have had positive health impacts for the community, which have had flow on economic effects. Conversations, he says, happened and people would go out of their way to visit the gardens and people have contacted him from all over the world.
Finley says he did a TED talk, which really pushed the project.
“It gave it a lot of visibility, credibility, and a lot of people woke up and saw that you have the opportunity to change your life and it starts in the soils.”
Finley says he started calling himself the ‘gangster gardener’, not because it related to violence but because he says it truly is gangsta.
“To me this is gangsta, because this is being a revolutionary, this is how you change the system, this is how you change your environment ……taking care of this planet is gangsta… being self-sustaining, that’s my kind of gangsta.”
Can You Dig This? Screens as part of the Architecture and Design Film Festival in Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch from May through to July.