In 2010, Ron Finley planted a garden on the 150-foot-long curbside strip outside his house in South Central Los Angeles. The produce -- tomatoes, kale, corn, you name it -- was free for the taking, and the colorful riot of herbs and flowers and vegetables got a lot of attention. The only unwelcome scrutiny was from the city of Los Angeles, which owns the land. Finley received a citation for growing plants that exceeded height limits, and for failing to purchase a $400 permit. By circulating a petition and bending the ear of a receptive city council member, Finley convinced the city to leave his garden alone. Around the same time, he helped start an organization called L.A. Green Grounds, dedicated to installing free vegetable gardens in curbside medians, vacant lots, and other properties in blighted areas.
Then, in February of this year, the self-described “gangster gardener” -- an outgoing straight-talker with a penchant for catchy one-liners -- gave a TED Talk. “The drive-throughs are killing more than the drive-bys,” he said, exhorting urban dwellers to get outside and “plant some shit.” The talk instantly rocketed him to green-thumb stardom. As of this writing, the talk has attracted more than 1.3 million views, and Finley has appeared on Russell Brand’s late night talk show and been profiled by The New York Times, among many others.
This fashion designer -- he’s dressed the likes of Shaquille O’Neal -- and collector of black entertainment memorabilia, highlighted in a recent movie poster exhibit, now spends much of his time delivering talks and planning new urban gardening ventures. All the media attention has brought new funding, including support from the Goldhirsh Foundation. (But in Los Angeles, the bureaucratic wheels grind slowly. Planting on curbside medians remains a tricky proposition.)
Finley had just returned from a permaculture workshop in Sonoma County when we spoke. We chatted about fame, sex, and his diabolical plan to take over the world.