Outside the clubhouse at Parque Niños Unidos, the freshly mown lawn is filled with children running in circles and squealing with glee. Playground equipment is clambered on. Toddlers stumble through the sand, giddily and uncertainly. A group of teenage boys loiter inside the park gazebo and try to look cool — this despite the fact that it is, in fact, impossible to look hip or sexy or dangerous anywhere near a gazebo.
If you climb into a time machine and move yourself forward through the park to a year or two in the future, the area behind the gazebo will be a small grove of trees — mulberry, fig, apple, avocado, plum, pineapple guava, chili guava — planted close together and pruned twice a year in the early stages of their life to keep them small — about six feet, more like little shrubs than trees. This most likely will render attempts to look cool near the gazebo even more futile.
“It’s important to show people that they can grow fruit and feed themselves,” says Tree, the man behind the orchard plans, addressing the crowd of about 30 people — mostly polar fleece-wearing and sensible shoe-clad — at the Community Garden Expansion Proposal Public Comment Meeting. “I know there’s a lot of people in this neighborhood that are struggling to get by, especially these days. A lot of children come to this park. It’s such a pleasure at the farm stand when I give out strawberries and see them running around eating them. Obesity. Diabetes. What better way to help children than by teaching them about where their food comes from?”
Tree is a Mission old-timer — he’s lived here since 1974, planting and harvesting neighborhood trees and gardens, and working with what he describes as “hunger issues.” He’s the main force behind the Free Farm Stand. To this meeting alone he has brought hot tea, homemade chocolate chip cookies (vegan), and a bucket of tomatoes from the community garden that he manages at the east end of the park. There may be an ulterior motive at work. It is hard to deny anything to a person who brings cookies to a meeting.
“I’ve been working on this for two years,” Tree continues. He’s got 150 signatures, the money and the volunteers. “I hope my enthusiasm for this lights a fire in other people.”
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
“If there’s fruit with seeds in it,” says a man in a maroon shirt, “kids will get back there and put it in their mouths and choke. So we need a fence around it. And insects. Is there a way to keep insects away? Are these trees going to be attractive to insects and their relatives?”
“I am completely against cutting the park down to put in trees to feed people,” says a woman with blonde hair and glasses. The park, she adds, “was made for children to run around.”
“This park gets more use from kids than any other park,” says a man in a yellow t-shirt. “More than Garfield, and Garfield is three times as big. These kids are all packed in.”
A hand goes up. “Why does there have to be a fence around the orchard?” a man with a tiny mustache asks.
Eric Anderson, the park’s director, says there’s a need to delineate space. “And also to protect. Sometimes you have people coming in and vandalizing. Almost all of the gardens are fenced in.”
“When the park first opened, the fence was three feet high,” says a woman who identifies herself as Pat. “Grapesteak tomatoes were used as projectiles. Windows were broken. It was not good energy for a community space. I petitioned for the higher fence, and I got the higher fence.”
“Trees are forever,” says the man in the yellow shirt. “Where are the volunteers going to be in five years, where there are no volunteers and there is fruit on the ground?”
“Free food!” someone says in the back of the room, excitedly.
Marvin Yee, the park’s designer and the manager for the Community Gardens Program, says with the city unable to meet the demand for community garden space, “we don’t anticipate a lack of volunteers in the future.”
“More gardens!” someone yells.
“Kids do use that space behind the gazebo,” continues Pat, applauding the idea but adding, “I just don’t think that Parque Niños Unidos behind the gazebo is a place for it.”
“What I’ve seen,” says a woman in a black jacket, “is that that’s the space where little kids take a pee. It’s very enticing.”
“Fertilizer!” yells another voice from the back.
“Why,” says an elegant woman with white hair and a cane, “is that area not already developed?”
“There was bamboo there,” says Pat. “But prostitutes and johns were using it for their business. And kids were finding spent condoms in there and saying ‘Look Mommy! Balloons!’”
“May I say something?” asks Tree, who says he wanted to give others a chance to talk but now wants his turn. “We have a history of having fruit trees in the garden. We’ve never had kids choking. We’ve never had any problem with kids eating strawberries, tomatoes, green beans, carrots…. All these things that children have come in and picked. No one has ever approached me and said, ‘Tree, this is a problem.’ The only problem is that a lot of the fruit is disappearing. People come and pick it.”
In the silence, a faint crooning can be heard. It’s the one small child attending the meeting. He bangs a pink toy against the floor over and over, singing quietly to himself.
“Kids and trees get along really well,” says a young guy with a mustache. “There’s something magical about having fruit around. There have been trees around kids since the history of kids.”
“No,” adds another man, emphatically. He continues with no small amount of sarcasm. “That’s a new thing.”
Anyone with additional public comment, issues or concerns about the Community Garden Expansion Proposal can direct them to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.