By Susan Valot
If you find yourself in one Los Angeles-area neighborhood, you can pop into a park and pick some fruit. At least that’s the idea at the new Del Air Public Fruit Park, in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, just southeast of LAX.
On a recent Saturday, officials and neighbors gathered to unveil the new public orchard and plant the final peach tree. The tree is among 17 in a small brown patch at the park.
Because it's winter, the trees are dormant, making the patch look more like a garden of brown sticks than a shady orchard. Nearby, 19 other fruit trees are scattered around a green lawn.
“Never in your wildest dreams would you imagine that here it’s 2013 before California has a public park that has a fruit orchard in it. You’d think they’d be all over the place, but they’re not,” said John Koppelman, the head of the neighborhood association that worked to get the orchard in the park.
“And for the first one to pop up next to a Chevron refinery and an airport and a freeway,” Koppelman said with a laugh, “it’s even more shocking.”
Koppelman said the orchard began with a request by the county’s art commission to create an art project as part of a $4 million renovation of the park, which also included a new community center.
Three L.A.-area artists known as Fallen Fruit came up with the idea of creating an orchard that the community could share.
Fallen Fruit artists (L-R) David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young get help from officials and neighbors to plant the final peach tree on Jan. 5, 2013 at the Del Aire Public Fruit Park in Los Angeles County.
It took a little bit of work to sell the idea of fruit trees as art. But Fallen Fruit artist Matias Viegener said it’s not as crazy as it sounds.
“The fruit tree isn’t art itself. It’s a fruit tree, and it’s a symbol, you know what I mean?” Viegener said. “It’s a symbol. The fruit’s a beautiful symbol. I think that our thought about what the art practice here is that art is something that connects people, right? It doesn’t just connect an artist to an audience. It connects people to each other. And that’s really the function of this orchard.”
Once the fruit is ready, anyone can pick peaches, apricots and plums, among other fruit. The park also includes several kinds of grapevines.
A sign greets orchard visitors with instructions: “The fruit trees in this park belong to the public. They are for everyone, including you. Please take care of the fruit trees. When the fruit is ripe, taste it and share it with others.”
Neighbor Eileen Salmas thinks the orchard will enhance the community, though she said the idea did cause some concern among neighbors about whether people will really share.
“We’ll see what happens as the trees grow and they bear fruit. You know, is somebody going to come by in the middle of the night and pick all the fruit off the trees? Or is it going to be what we envision as community?” Salmas said. “But I think unless we try it, we’re never going to know.”
So why has it taken so long for California, a state rich in agriculture, to have a public fruit orchard?
“I’m going to assume that it’s really all these fears about fruit trees in public space,” Fallen Fruit artist Austin Young hypothesized. “In every meeting, these fears were brought up, but I think, clearly, this park here is going to be a milestone in changing what people think is okay to plant in public space."
It took a bit of persuading at public meetings to get critics behind the orchard idea. Viegener said it’s often difficult to change public perceptions of what public space should be.
“It took a long time because it is very hard to affect change in public space. There’s so many [agencies]. There’s the parks department. There’s the health and safety, buildings and safety,” Viegener said. “So there’s all these organizations that need to check off on things. So any project you see like this has taken many years to come into its shape.”
Fallen Fruit artist David Burns said his group has been thinking about the idea of a shared orchard in public space for eight years now. He said it fills a gap that’s missing in today’s California.
“A hundred and fifty years ago, it was part of the due diligence of the rancho system in California to actually plant fruit trees and take care of people on their journeys across this territory,” Burns said. “And it’s funny that 150 years later, we think everything’s about my boundary and my fence.”
Fallen Fruit said it gets several inquiries every week about doing similar projects in other parts of the country. At the Del Aire Public Fruit Park opening, at least one person approached them about planting a similar orchard in her neighborhood’s park.
L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was a driving force behind the park, which is in his district. He called the orchard “edible art,” and said he can see public orchards going up in other parts of the county.
“It is quite conceivable, in terms of the other efforts we have around community gardens and open space, green space,” said Ridley-Thomas. “It builds relationships among neighbors and a whole range of things come out of this.”