What does an urban orchard mean for the West End?

Jul 20, 2016 at 11:18 am
Markenzie, 7, shows off peaches she picked from a first-year tree
Markenzie, 7, shows off peaches she picked from a first-year tree Photo by Jinn Bug

At the official opening of Produce Park, an orchard on South 30th Street, local officials hailed a very literal form of neighborhood revitalization: starting with trees and fruit.

Planted on a former vacant lot, the orchard came about through a partnership between the city and nonprofit Louisville Grows. A $30,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropy funded it, with the aim of promoting local food and turning vacant lots into assets.

Although the peach, cherry, plum and apple trees in Produce Park, off Muhammad Ali Boulevard at South 30th Street, are just saplings for now, city leaders were confident that even such symbolic — and real — efforts to seed change in the West End will bear fruit.

Putting gardens and orchards into the West End is a way of cultivating hope, and maybe community, too, but it’s clear that even more direct investment needs to be plowed into the neighborhood to create sustainable jobs.

During the ceremony, Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton designated the 30th-Street corridor as an emerging food-business hub, with the West Louisville Food Port rising right across the street from Produce Park.

“We are witnessing and participating in the visible transformation of what was a food desert just a few years ago into an oasis,” Hamilton said.

The Food Port, intended to consolidate and co-locate a range of operations related to local food, will be the country’s largest such hub. The 24-acre site was formerly home to the National Tobacco Company, which employed over a thousand people in the early 1900s. The Food Port has been projected to bring 250 to 300 permanent jobs to the area.

The orchard may be a bellwether of change for the neighborhood.

Produce Park joins a number of other community gardens and orchards that are greening the area. The People’s Garden in Shawnee and the Community Food Forest in Portland are also maintained by Louisville Grows. Orchards are a particularly desirable form of urban agriculture for Louisville since they bring food and trees together.

“Adding to the tree canopy is crucial to making the city healthier,” said Mike Brooks, treasurer of Louisville Grows. He paused to wipe his brow. “It is so super-hot right at this moment. If we don’t fix this, I’m going to have to move to Minnesota.”

It wasn’t just that we were standing in the dizzying sun of a 93-degree afternoon. Louisville has a serious heat-island problem, suffering the most-rapid urban warming of any city in America since the 1960s.

But that’s not the only reason that orchard projects “get chocolate in our peanut butter,” in the words of Brooks. They are also an efficient means to produce local food, requiring less maintenance and yielding more food per pound than do conventional gardens.

Finally, orchards have some less tangible benefits. “The fruit production is valuable, but almost secondary to an urban orchard’s ability to build community,” said Valerie Magnuson, executive director of Louisville Grows.

Mayor Greg Fischer emphasized the same point when he spoke to the importance of community gardens in general. “So often, people tell me, ‘I’m meeting my neighbor for the first time.’”

Produce Park is intended to be both a working orchard, as well as a public green space, with amenities such as a bike rack and benches planned for the future — depending on additional fundraising. Ongoing maintenance will be the responsibility of Louisville Grows staff and volunteers.

Angel Akin, Dynesha Coleman and Tayshawn Warner, all 16, signed up for Louisville Grows through the mayor’s SummerWorks program. They had started referring to themselves as the Three Musketeers after the other three kids that joined with them all quit because the work was “too hard, and too hot.”

There had been a lot to do in the previous weeks to get Produce Park ready for its official debut. “We planted flowers, and put mulch out. We put up that sign,” Angel said, gesturing to the RSquared sign at the edge of the lot (RSquared stands for “Reuse & Revitalize,” the city initiative to repurpose vacant properties). “A lot of people [from the neighborhood] stopped by to ask about the program. We told them to sign up, and gave them vegetable and flower seeds.”

Tayshawn said he likes the job because he got to give people produce and show them how to garden.

Some community activists fear projects like the Food Port and Produce Park may spell the beginning of the neighborhood’s end through gentrification. But Dynesha took the opposite view. “It’s about trying to stop the violence and help the West End look better,” she said.

The idea of an orchard certainly seems to have an effect on the imagination. A short while before, Magnuson had spoken of the transformative potential of vacant lots into “Gardens of Eden, with free fruit for all.”

But will money grow on these trees too?