A garden sprouts at South LA Library


Lush greenery shades the street on Ron Finley’s parkway in South LA. | Marisa Zocco

From a tiny seed, a mighty garden may grow. This is precisely what Ron Finley is aiming for as he kicks off the development of his Vermont Square Library garden project in South Los Angeles.

Finley, a South L.A. native, plans to turn the library’s yard into an open-air library beginning May 28, complete with string lights and swings hanging from the trees. The transformation will coincide with L.A. Design Festival, running through June 14. During the time, tutorials will provide instruction on how to make Adirondack chairs out of palettes, graffiti artists will paint murals on giant panels, and movies may be shown al fresco.


The Vermont Square Library, one of the oldest in Los Angeles, bears Italian Renaissance-style architecture. | Marisa Zocco

The building is the oldest to be owned by the Los Angeles Public Library system, built in 1913. And the library is one of only three remaining in Los Angeles funded by businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

“To me [the library] is an icon. I love the fact that it’s not on a boulevard or a main street. It’s almost like Mayberry in the ‘hood,” Finley said, referring to the fictional town of the ‘60s-era Andy Griffith Show. “It has an acre behind it. So I want to turn it into a food oasis or wonderland.”

Finley is no stranger to the art of the food oasis. Where he stood on a recent afternoon outside his home in the Crenshaw district, plants in his parkway stood taller than 6 feet, casting shade over the sidewalk. The face of a sunflower, one of Finley’s favorite plants, swayed in the breeze at shoulder level. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Sprouting ideas
Years ago, when Finley first contemplated his barren parkway, the area of city-owned space between his sidewalk and the street, he pondered the lack of fresh food in his neighborhood. Tired of too few options, Finley dug into the ground to plant produce.

It wasn’t long before Finley was fined for breaking a city-wide ordinance prohibiting the growth of edible plants in his parkway without a $400 permit. By 2012, Finley was facing up to $3,000 in fines. Still the self-proclaimed “renegade gardener” refused to be prohibited from growing nutritious food in a neighborhood that he says needs it.

“We have situations—neighborhoods that have absolutely no healthy food whatsoever. Why wouldn’t you allow people to grow food?” Finley asked, with a creased brow. “As far as L.A. goes, we need to be on the map. We need to be innovators.”

Finley’s advocacy, combined with the grit of others passionate about growing healthy produce, paid off. The ordinance was amended in March 2015. With the exception of trees, it is now legal in the city of Los Angeles to plant fruits or vegetables without a permit. Finley, however, didn’t want to stop there.

South Los Angeles is part of an urban metropolis, yet is known to be what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls a food desert—an area that has limited access to produce and other healthy foods.

Finley has his own term for the lack of nutrition in South L.A. He calls it a food prison. With the Vermont Square library he hopes to free people from having to depend on unhealthy processed foods, and is brainstorming similar projects for the future.

“I wanted to expand into vacant lots and turn them into green spaces or food forests where people can come get their food and get at least something healthy and stop being a slave to the system,” Finley said.


Shrubs in Ron Finley’s parkway. | Marisa Zocco

In Finley’s home parkway garden, in spaces between chard, carrots and a gigantic rosemary bush, pieces of recycled art add to the visual aspect of his parkway garden. An old iron gate stands propped against a tree, vines climbing its bars. A metal cog stands out amidst shorter plants potted in old drawers and wooden wine boxes. Two graffiti murals cover the brick wall that surrounds his home. This visual aesthetic is just a small preview of what Finley has in mind for the Vermont Square garden.

“I want there to be engagement with food, arts, nature and a container café — one made from an old metro bus or a train.” Finley said, contemplating the possibilities for the space. One idea is cooking classes.

“I want this to be complete community engagement,” he said. “I want to change culture.”

A need for seeds
Outside of the ornate library, resident Valerie Franklin said she has noticed a lack of fresh foods in local markets and thinks a community garden could be the start of a transformation.

“I grew up in Riverside so I’m used to fresh produce, fresh meats. They tend to not have that over here for whatever reason,” Franklin said. “I think [the garden] is a great idea because I think it will help with obesity in some of the lower income areas. If they have more fruits and vegetables they can come and pick from, maybe they’ll stop going to the fast food restaurants and prepare meals at home.”


Edible chard planted by Ron Finley. | Marisa Zocco

Franklin said that because of the lack of availability of food near her home, she does her grocery shopping in the city where she works, miles away from where she lives.

“My husband and I shop over in Santa Monica and Century City because that’s where we tend to find the fresh fruits and vegetables which is unfortunate but true. People make do with the stores around here. I don’t want to belittle them, but it’s just not what I am used to.”

Another South Los Angeles resident, Antonio Austin, supported the concept of public gardens but still greeted the idea with cautious skepticism.

“You have to think about people who might mess it up, plant other things or vandalize it,” Austin said, pointing out spray paint tagging on a wall. “It’s a good idea, though, to plant tomatoes, carrots or potatoes—anything to help the environment and help people out, where if they need or want to get it, they can.”

Growing change
Finley is familiar with vandalism. Not long ago, someone came and picked every single orange from his tree, leaving only three deep within its branches. Looking over his shoulder, Finley motioned his thumb to a stalk of artichokes that had recently been trampled.


A bee perches on a flower near Ron Finley’s home. | Marisa Zocco

While Finley said he was upset to have his garden occasionally abused, he said he keeps his eye on his mission. More than growing flowers and fruit, Finley aims to create a sense of self-reliance and engagement in his community.

For example, he would like to bring a “seed library” to the Vermont library, where residents would be able to check out seeds and tools, just like library books, and start their own gardens.

“This is for people to be inspired,” Finley said. “This is for people to pass by and see — to get their mind changed for a minute.”

A phrase painted on the wall of Finley’s home stood out from behind an oval metal frame with a few shards of glass stuck to its sides. “There are no broken dreams,” it read. “Only unfinished reality.”

For Finley, the focus is now on transforming his ambitions for Vermont Square garden into finished reality.

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