A twist on urban agriculture: fruit trees as art installation

Patricia Leigh Brown / New York Times News Service /

Published May 12, 2013 at 05:00AM

DEL AIRE, Calif. — Fruit looms large in the California psyche. Since the 1800s, dewy images of oranges, lemons and other fruits have been a lure for seekers of the state’s postcard essence, symbols of fertile land, felicitous climate and the possibilities of pleasure.

Now a cheeky trio of artists have turned fruit trees into cultural symbols as well. The group, known as Fallen Fruit, recently planted what is being billed as the state’s first public fruit park in an unincorporated community with neatly clipped lawns outside Los Angeles.

The park is part of a growing “fruit activist” movement, a variation on a theme of urban agriculture. The Los Angeles County Arts Commission initiated the project to “fulfill a civic purpose,” said Laura Zucker, the commission’s executive director, addressing the public-health advantage for communities that are so-called food deserts, with few stores and healthy restaurants.

“They give endlessly and don’t ask for anything in return,” Austin Young, one of Fallen Fruit’s members, said of the fruit trees that make up the group’s latest “art piece” — a fledgling orchard of Tropic Snow white peaches, Mariposa plums and other trees installed alongside swing sets and basketball hoops in Del Aire Park.

Fallen Fruit, which also comprises Matias Viegener and David Allen Burns, has become well known among art and culinary cognoscenti here and across social media. One of the group’s first activities was mapping publicly accessible fruit trees in Silver Lake and other Los Angeles neighborhoods, including private trees with succulent fruit tantalizingly draped over public rights of way.

To kick off the opening of the fruit park here, which consists of 27 trees planted on the site and 60 more distributed to residents, the group held one of their ritual public “fruit jams,” in which participants gather around a portable stove to make never-before-seen concoctions from whatever surplus fruit is available.

Del Aire, population 10,000 and one of about 140 unincorporated communities scattered throughout Los Angeles County, is a somewhat isolated area bordered on the north and east by Interstates 405 and 105 that feels light-years away from the Frank Gehry world of contemporary Los Angeles art. With its modest postwar ranch houses built for aerospace workers, “Del Aire is not to be confused with Bel Air,” said John Koppelman, a heavy-truck operator and the president of the neighborhood association.

The decision to go with “edible art” as part of a larger park renovation, rather than a standard mural, was seen as a way to foster residents’ participation, said Karly Katona, a deputy to Mark Ridley-Thomas, the local county supervisor. Traditionally, public works officials have opposed fruit trees because of maintenance concerns, she said, like sidewalks stained or made slippery by fallen rotted fruit.

“There is an understanding that the community will be involved in upkeep” of the park, she said. “It’s an experiment,” she added. “It might not work.”

The heady philosophical question of whether fruit trees are art does not seem to preoccupy residents like Virgie Shields, 89, who recalled that the neighborhood was “a mud puddle with polliwogs” before 1950, the year she moved onto the choice corner lot that now boasts a persimmon tree.

For the members of Fallen Fruit, who once videotaped lingonberries, salmonberries and blueberries in the Norwegian Arctic for a project titled “The Loneliest Fruit in the World,” the process of planting and harvesting fruit is a community bonding experience — an act of “social art” in which public space is reimagined. The fruit from Del Aire’s trees is to be divvied up among “host families,” as the artists call the residents, with a fruit map posted on the Web. “Fruit is nonpolarizing,” Burns said. “When you walk through a place that has fruit trees, it’s typically a place that feels optimistic and abundant, rather than desperate or ignored.”

Though Fallen Fruit is rooted in Los Angeles, the group is also part of a growing fruit-activist movement, midwifed by pioneers like TreePeople in Los Angeles, which has given away some 200,000 trees, including thousands of fruit trees, since 1983. Newer arrivals include “urban space hackers” like the Guerrilla Grafters in San Francisco, who surreptitiously graft fruit tree branches onto purely ornamental trees. Another is the San Francisco Garden Registry, which tracks urban farmers online and, like a fruit dating service, helps them meet and share their surplus harvests.

Margaret Crawford, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, said that Fallen Fruit and other activists were tapping into urban agriculture as a growing force in which creative noncommercial possibilities for public spaces are being explored beyond community gardening.

“There is a new political philosophy emerging in which literally anybody can be an agent of transformation,” she said. “It’s bringing attention to the cumbersome and always-expanding regulatory apparatus of the city.”

New orchards are springing up in other cities, too, including Chicago, where the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project seeks to preserve forgotten fruit like the pawpaw, and Seattle, where Seattle City Fruit volunteers are liberating orchards long concealed by vines.

Back in Del Aire, the arrival of fruit trees in a California public park resurrects a bit of history, said Douglas Cazaux Sackman, a professor at the University of Puget Sound and the author of “Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden” (University of California Press, 2005). The citrus groves that once defined Los Angeles and environs largely disappeared in a welter of real estate development.

Though minuscule by agribusiness standards, the new fruit park is a cause for celebration, he said. “It brings that golden wonder of California back for people to enjoy and be nourished by.”

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