The fruit trees have since been relegated to private landscaping, but that may be changing thanks to grassroots efforts. If successful, this neighborhood’s orchard could be the go-to model for reestablishing working agriculture inside city limits, both here in Los Angeles and across the country.
It’s a slightly chilly January morning in the Hollywood hills. About a dozen neighbors are cradling hot coffee cups and eating local chef Minh Pham’s sapote coffee cake while listening to actor Bill Pullman talk about fruit trees. We’re standing under a verdant canopy dotted with Seville oranges, the small orange fruits occasionally falling from above, beaning the attendees. The fallen fruit is carefully set aside in a pile on the ground, a marmalade waiting to happen.
The Pullmans–Bill and his wife Tamara– are shepherding the project along. They provide meeting space on their hillside property and steer the enthusiasm of their fellow neighbors into irrigation planning, community outreach, soil building, tree selection, strategic planning, fundraising, and kitchen work–and all before a single tree has even been planted. Their own private orchard of over 100 different fruiting trees and shrubs serves as a testament that these uneven, hard scrabble hillsides can become well-managed groves of healthy and vibrant fruit trees, providing ample harvests for each season. Even the coffee cake inspires–the sapote in the recipe comes from the 125 lbs. of fruit that Bill and Tamara harvested from their trees. But more than anything else, their primary harvest right now is of everyone’s hunger for a holistic connection with their community.
“We started working on our own orchard here when we moved in 20 years ago,” said Tamara, acknowledging that it didn’t happen overnight. “Bill always had a vision of having citrus orchards in the neighborhood and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could spread the love of the orchard to the rest of the community.”
It’s not a far-fetched idea. Hollywood used to be one of the agricultural centers of Southern California, home to expansive groves of citrus and avocados and a few entrepreneurial fruit breeders hoping to create improved and disease-resistant crosses of popular, and lucrative, fruit trees. Back in October, Bill’s vision started to coalesce into something real when a large piece of land–an extremely valuable commodity in space-strapped Hollywood– in the center of their neighborhood became available. The Pullmans jumped on it.
“We’ve been doing things with our neighbors for years,” said Bill, referring to the block parties, music festivals, and Halloween festivities for which his street is known. “I couldn’t really imagine saying let’s just preserve the land as open space. It was more important that we galvanized this community spirit we’ve been feeling and growing.”
Indeed as I sit among the Farmer’s Circle attendees, I notice that this isn’t really like any other neighborhood meeting. There was a palpable buzz in the group of both excitement and trepidation. It didn’t take much convincing to get everyone together to help bring Bill and Tamara’s idea to literal fruition–a few emails, some phone calls, and a little word of mouth. It seems carving out a viable and sustainable foodshed mere blocks from the urban tussle around the Hollywood Freeway was just the thing they were all looking for–something deeper than the usual neighborly wave as they picked up the morning paper.
I think the heart of it is these people aren’t farmers here,” said Bill. “And they like the idea of it. They like knowing more, about making that holistic connection. So you realize the community building through the collective effort to build something that’s a sustainable model. You’re getting people learning about growing trees and then growing food and then learning how to use it.”
The land in question–a hilly, cactus strewn one-acre parcel on a ridge underneath the Hollywood sign–once belonged to the late Maxine Currey, who had lived in the neighborhood from 1913 until her death in 2001 and was beloved for her dedication to her neighborhood. In a decidedly un-Hollywood move, she bequeathed the homes she owned to her tenants when she died. She set the tone and the example of what it means to be a neighbor in this small hillside community, and many of the residents take it to heart. Most of them are people from the entertainment industry–actors, producers, filmmakers, writers, agents– all probably more versed in pushing a script than wheelbarrow. It’s hard to say what exactly compelled them to show up at the Pullmans’ house, bright and early on Saturday morning–the chance to get dirty, turn compost and haul manure or the need to honor and protect the legacy of one woman who knit the fabric of their community together. Probably a little of everything.
“It’s not an organization,” says John Allen, a longtime Hollywood resident and one of the local neighbors working on the orchard’s newly established Soil and Trees committee. “It’s a movement. It’s a movement because I see it as the alternative to a commercialized way of life–the corporate take-over of our food and entertainment. It encourages community and development.” He turns and points up to the group above us working on the compost pile. “Neighbors who knew each other only in passing are now working together. That, I love.”
Vicky Komer is another longtime resident– 31 years in the neighborhood and currently living in the house her grandparents built. She’s on the Kitchen and Food committee tasked with finding ways to use and distribute the fruit they’ll eventually grow.
“I don’t have a back for digging ditches,” says Komer, noting that her husband, Glen, used to live on a 42-acre ranch and is familiar with building water towers and planning irrigation. “I do enjoy cooking so I want to do the cooking stuff. Also I enjoy meeting neighbors, working together and creating something for the future.”
The future is a common thread among everyone here. While their work in the moment is all very fulfilling, most are feeding a hunger for something bigger than themselves that allows them to grab control of the reins on a runaway food industry. Despite their excitement, several of them worry about the project petering out before it has a chance to set roots, or worse, taking off and fundamentally changing the personality of their community.
“Is this just going to be a flash in the pan?” asks Laura Garcia, a neighbor who lives just down the hill. “Will the next generation stay interested in it? How can we ensure that’s going to happen? And I also think, ‘Geez, it would be a shame if 50 or 60 years from now people walk through the orchard and it’s overgrown and cobwebbed. How do we keep the neighbors and the next generation invested?’”
Garcia, like almost everyone else here, worked in the entertainment industry, and was looking for something grounding that would connect her to her community while teaching her new things. She wants to dive into canning and preserving, which, thanks to a partnership the Pullmans have established with Master Food Preserver and Executive Chef of the Farmer’s Kitchen Ernest Miller, will be a major focus for the Kitchen and Food committee.
In addition to teaching and practicing food preservation, Miller and the Kitchen committee are looking to establish a mobile community kitchen food truck, to take to schools and event sites to educate people about local food and how to prepare home harvested fruits for storage in order to reduce spoilage and maximize the crop’s usable life. Sharing their harvests with local food banks and shelters is also a big focus, so they’ve been partnering with another groundbreaking local non-profit, Food Forward, to coordinate harvests of the already established virtual orchard dotted throughout the local private landscaping of their neighborhood.
It bears mentioning that aside from forking though a pile of compost and baking some orange bread for a fundraiser back in December–no small task as they managed to bake over 60 loaves enlisting local ovens and freezers–most of the work of the orchard is still generally on paper. That will change as shovels start to hit dirt, possibly later this year. But in the meantime, the focus is on planning and navigating an uncertain future, especially when it comes to defining just exactly what they mean by developing community. Is the orchard a pastoral balm for a few city streets, or is community defined as anyone who feels kinship to the cause?
“We’re still trying to understand what [the orchard] will support,” says Tamara, recognizing the inherent dangers in growing too big, too fast. “I think part of it is because Bill thinks big and is very excited about casting a wide net. I’m like, oh let’s acquire the land and just keep it for the street, but all those other ideas–working with the local school, doing fundraising, getting the mobile community kitchen up and running– widen our definition of community.”
In the coming weeks, the Farmer’s Circle would meet with local beekeeping experts– pollination will be key–orchardists, urban planning experts, other local chefs and more neighbors as they work to cement community support for the project and its goals. Listening to the different groups meeting to discuss things like greywater capture, colony collapse disorder, gravity irrigation and food preservation, it’s difficult to remember that they’re all still really new at this. Which is why they’re enlisting all the help they can get to ensure Maxine’s Mountain becomes productive and healthy, both as a food source and as the beating heart of the neighborhood they’ve all come to love.
That outreach could ultimately alter their definition of community, expanding it from a few surrounding streets to anyone in L.A. who wants to participate and learn. It’s an issue that makes a few of the Farmer’s Circle attendees nervous, and a few pull me aside to ask me to talk about the project respectfully and carefully. They can see the wonderful potential, but they also deal with a constant invasion of tourists roaming their neighborhood, looking for a way to hike up to the Hollywood sign. And it’s apparent that a few are not eager to have yet another attraction that will openly invite Los Angeles to their doorsteps.
A couple of days later, Tamara and I are wandering through her already established private orchard when she takes a deep breath. We’re surrounded by green and newly blossoming stone fruit trees and all you can hear are birds and the rustle of a few squirrels in the bushes. Standing in this orchard, you can see–and smell and hear–why this project means so much to everyone involved. It’s more than an oasis.
“It’s all going to be defined more carefully as we move along,” she says, thoughtful about what opening up means to her neighbors. “We don’t want to say, ‘it’s ours and you can’t come in.’ But yeah, it’s risky to say, ‘Come on in!’ We’re already confronted by an increased influx of tourists [coming to the Hollywood sign].”
She looks around. “I think right now people have little anxiety about it because it’s unknown. We don’t want to spoil whatever our feeling is here.”
For the Pullmans and their neighbors, whose lives have to flex and bend with the whims of a constantly changing industry, this new neighborhood orchard allows them to literally and figuratively set down roots. That feeling is home.
CHEF MINH PHAN OF THE BEACHWOOD CAFE
SAPOTE COFFEE CAKE RECIPE