Art project builds community through fruit

Community organizers and activists are always on the lookout for projects and programs that can help build up neighbors and neighborhoods.

Fallen Fruit, a project initiated by Los Angeles-based artists David Burns and Austin Young that partners, via arts organizations, with local communities for the planting of public fruit parks, has proven to be just that kind of opportunity for two Columbus neighborhoods.

Fruit trees, vines and other plants were recently planted in the Reeb-Hosack neighborhood on the south side and in Weinland Park on the north. Fallen Fruit stipulates that the fruit, as it ripens, is available for anyone to come, pick and eat, as well as gather, talk and spend time outdoors.

“The name Fallen Fruit comes from the book of Leviticus in the Bible, where it says not to harvest the outside rows of the fields but to leave the fallen fruit for the stranger or the passerby,” Burns said in a phone interview.

The Wexner Center for the Arts encouraged Fallen Fruit, which has done more than 100 of these public orchards all over the world, to come up with a proposal to bring the concept to Columbus, and subsequently connected the artists to the leaders of community groups in these neighborhoods.

“[The Wexner Center has] a long history with Weinland Park, but I had heard former [Columbus] Mayor [Michael] Coleman say several years ago that it was important to focus resources on the city's south side, so we also connected with Bob Leighty,” said Wexner Center Director of Education Shelly Casto. “We found that they'd been wanting to do an edible orchard, and he was able to help us connect with the community and find a spot.”

“We'd been talking about food as an economic driver,” said Leighty, who runs the Parsons Avenue Merchants Association and is involved with a host of social service organizations serving the south side, in an interview at the Reeb Avenue Center, a former school that now serves as office and program space for 15 nonprofit groups. “I'd had a friend mention edible forests. I didn't really know what one was, but fate intervened.”

“This definitely fits into the kind of thing we're doing and are interested in doing more of as a community,” said Weinland Park Community Civic Association President Jennifer Mankin.

“Our first project together [involved] mapping fruit trees in public spaces,” Young said. “Since that time, we have always worked with fruit trees and fruit. As much as we do projects in museums and exhibition spaces around the world, it's very important to us to also create new public spaces. And we're always interested in fruit trees.

“Our work is really about creating connections with people. We think of the park as a way for people to connect. Our work is always social. We use fruit trees as a way to make those connections. It's a great way to bring the community together.”

The South Side Fruit Park is located on Reeb Avenue about a block off Parsons, on the original site of the South Side Settlement House, according to lifelong south side resident and activist Donna Bates. The space features about 40 trees, vines with 25 different varieties of grapes, wildflowers (to attract pollinators), heirloom vines and more.

“Years ago everybody had a vine or tree or garden in their yard — apple, cherry, pear — and we all shared what we had,” said Bates. “These vines and trees represent the history of the neighborhood come full circle, in a way. The Settlement House was where immigrants went to learn how to, among other things, cook with what we had locally.”

“With the neighborhood going through a rebirth, it made sense to take advantage of this kind of an opportunity,” Bates added. “Recent history has shown that the community has been successful in these kinds of public partnerships, [and] that people really want to participate.”

Leighty said the park will share a lot with a Community Housing Network facility for men transitioning out of homelessness, and is across the street from a new senior citizen residential property. He hopes the proximity will encourage all of the neighborhood's constituencies to participate in the growth and upkeep of the orchard. Leighty also said that Ohio State University Extension, one of the agencies housed at Reeb Avenue Center, will offer classes through its Master Gardener program for interested neighbors.

Mankin likened the Weinland Park Berry Patch to an extension of the neighborhood's already-successful community gardens.

“We have a number of community gardens, and they've been some of the most successful public spaces for people to get to know each other,” she said. Mankin added that those who work to grow and maintain the community gardens have volunteered to help with the same efforts in the new Fallen Fruit space, which is located at Fourth Street and Eleventh Avenue.

“Our residents just wanted to assure we would be able to optimize the use of the space, and also make sure the space remains open and inviting to everybody,” Mankin said.

She said there will be a Little Free Library at the new park as well.