Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Urban gardening, for real, with Ron Finley

I grew up with a vegetable garden and thought it a passive, obvious activity. Why would anyone not? And why would anyone mind?

On Sunday, while tying string on a trellis for my pea plants to climb, I thought about gardening as an act of estimable audacity. My mind had been shaped a few days earlier by Ron Finley, the self-described "guerilla gardener" from Los Angeles, who was visiting Pittsburgh. He says that "growing your own food is like printing your own money."

Ten years ago, urban farms and community gardens stood out as quirky. Today, they're everywhere, one of the few national trends that benefit people's health, budgets and the environment.

It takes a while to tie string for peas. I had time to think about how people's health, their budgets and the environment are all under attack by America's power elite and their elected proxies. Growing your own food is a powerful act. If enough people do it, what becomes of the industrial-agricultural complex?

In 2010, Mr. Finley planted fruit trees and vegetable plants on a parkway strip in front of his home in the neighborhood where in 1991 police beat Rodney King to a pulp. South Central's new brand name is South L.A., but it has the same number of vacant lots, fast food, pawn shops and liquor stores as South Central, Mr. Finley points out.

He described it as not just a food desert but a food prison.

"Somebody showed me how to make compost and it changed my life," he said during a drive around Pittsburgh last week. He was here for the Women for a Healthy Environment's Farm to Community Conference and also spoke at a Heinz Endowments event.

"I got tired of having to drive 45 minutes round trip to buy an apple that wasn't impregnated with pesticides," he said in a TED talk last year. "So I grow food on the street in South Central Los Angeles. That made me a criminal."

He had violated an ordinance against planting on parkway strips and received a warrant. Someone had complained. He told the radio audience: "I said 'Really? A warrant for planting food on a piece of land you couldn't care less about?'

"The L.A. Times did a story and [someone] put up a petition. A member of City Council championed the idea and the city changed its law."

I asked if he ever found out who complained. He said he doesn't care.

"I say embrace your haters because they can make you famous. If it weren't for that hater, you wouldn't be in the back of this car."

I had cadged a ride with Chelsea Holmes, program coordinator for Women for a Healthy Environment, who was giving Mr. Finley a tour. He photographed gardens, murals and even asked a young man on the street to pose. The young man looked delighted and surprised and hitched his trousers up from the tops of his legs.

"I also do this to keep kids out of prison, without ever saying it," Mr. Finley said of his gardening mission. A fashion designer by training, he said he wants his message to affect "the whole world. I want people to sustain themselves doing this."

As a footnote to his crusade, others in South Central had created a beautiful example before greed came calling in 2006. In 1994, the L.A. Regional Food Bank proposed a community garden as a way for the neighborhood to heal after the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King prompted rioting. The city granted a revocable permit.

The garden did more than heal. The neighbors -- blacks and Latinos and their families -- came together to create a 14-acre eden of food growing, sharing and conversation.

In her book "Food and the City," Jennifer Cockrall-King writes about the transformation and an ironic plot twist: Thanks to the farmers, the land was valuable. The former owner wanted it back and the city sold it to him. The farmers mounted a challenge that brought out the riot police and their nurturing, shady, community farm was bulldozed. (Read a story about the politics of the deal at southcentralfarmers.com.)

It is still possible for "the people" to dictate to government, and it is critical that more of the people be those whom government has overlooked or beaten up, whose neighborhoods always get stuck with the garbage incinerators.

"Gardens are tools for the emancipation of my neighborhood," Mr. Finley said.

I thought about all this while tying strings for my pea plants to grab onto.

For more information about the Ron Finley Project, visit ronfinley.com.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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