Today at midnight California lifted all covid related restrictions. I went out into the world and did errands and for the first time since March of 2020 I went out knowing I could do it without a mask. It was an odd mixture of excitement and strangeness to not wear the mask. I realized today was the perfect day to go to one specific location.
Last October, in the middle of the pandemic and when Los Angeles was in the midst of a spike in covid cases, I went to the bank. Driving to the branch on Fairfax, I saw few cars and even less people. It felt more like an empty movie set of a city than a real city. Of course, this was month seven of the lock down so none of the emptiness was new to me, but I remember feeling the loneliness of Beverly and Fairfax a bit more pronounced, perhaps because the spike was unnerving. When I pulled into the parking lot, I said hello to the parking attendant who was heading towards the fruit vendor. After my transaction and as I walked back to the car I stopped to the talk to the attendant, I asked her if she and the fruit vendor were friends. She said that they became friends and they talk to each other when it is slow, “It gets lonely out here.” I nodded, “I get it.” We all have funny relationships in our work. No career is immune including fruit vendors.
On Martel Street, there was a man who stood on the corner and yelled at any car that drove by for decades. I started noticing him in the early 1990s. When I moved in the neighborhood, I saw him a lot and I asked Charlie, “What do you think the owner of the house thinks about the yelling man?” We came to conclusion that the yelling man was probably related in some way to the people who owned the house. Day in and day out there was yelling although there were a couple years in the early 2000s when someone new joined the corner. A fruit vendor. Sitting on the wall but not next to the yelling guy was a young man selling oranges and mangoes. I used to think about this man in his early twenties doing everything he could to get out of central America and he ends up selling fruit next to a man in his 60s who yells at cars. I wondered what he thought about it and one day my friend who is bilingual came to visit, I said, “I need you to come with me.” We drove to the corner and she translated my questions and his answers. Yes, the yelling man yells all the time, but the man does not yell at him. It used to bother him at first but it does not now. He figured something was wrong with him mentally. I asked, “Is there some other job he can do?” My friend asked him, and he lifted his shoulders, “I’m from a farm.” We thanked him for his conversation, later I bought some of his oranges.
The first orange to arrive in California was at Mission San Gabriel in 1804. A small orchard of Valencia trees was planted by Padre Tomas Sanchez, of course, like everything at the mission, the trees would have been maintained by Tongva, who were not paid for their services. William Wolfskill, a Kentucky trapper who went west as a young man and received Mexican citizenship in New Mexico, arrived in Los Angeles via the Santa Fe trail in 1831 and later purchased 100 acres of land in the pueblo. In 1841, Wolfskill became the second person to plant orange trees although his goal was to grow them for commercial purposes. He used seedlings from the mission’s orchards and started with a small grove on his ranch at what is modern day Alameda and 3rd. Wolfskill got lucky when gold was discovered in 1849. Miners who needed protection from scurvy paid premium price for his Valencia oranges which he shipped to San Francisco. He expanded his orchard and bought land throughout Southern and Northern CA. At one point, Wolfskill had 2500 orange trees which was half the oranges in the United States. After Wolfksill died in 1866, his family continued the orange business which benefited by the transcontinental railroad. Yesterday, I went to the location of Wolfskill’s ranch. I got out of the car and took a photo facing north. It seemed to me that in the mid 1800s, Wolfskill’s ranch must have been nice with its view to the north of the San Gabriel Mountains and the river to the east and surrounded by the fragrant orange trees.
In Riverside there was an idealistic white couple who believed in utopian society and racial equality, not surprisingly they were pushed out of their home in Virginia by the KKK who did not share their desires or beliefs. The wife, who was also a suffragist, Eliza Tibbet was not afraid to go with her impulses asked a horticulturist in Washington DC to send her cuttings of a seedless orange that originated from Bahia Brazil. Eliza planted the cuttings in the farm and the trees thrived. The Washington navel orange was a hit and the couple sold cuttings. Between the Valencia, the Navel and transcontinental cold railroad cars, oranges became the rage across the nation. Orange farms popped up all over Southern California. In 1870 there were 30,000 orange trees, by 1890 there were 1.1 million. Sunkist (a syndicate of local growers) advertised across the country and their vibrant artwork helped sell the message that “California oranges are the best.” What the silicon was to Santa Clara County in the 20th century, the orange was to Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside Counties in the 19th century. It was a major business. Today in Riverside one of Eliza’s original trees is still standing 148 years later and still produces fruit.
In the early 1910’s small towns like Hollywood were attracting workers (film industry) and profitable citrus orchards were being replaced with even more lucrative homes. Ten years ago, when I was researching Sherman (West Hollywood) I was surprised to see an orchard still intact in a 1920 photo. The small grove was surrounded by homes. I am not sure what was the fruit on those trees but when I drove over to check out what I believe to be the location, I found mid-century apartments. I wondered, had an old timer, who had been a child during the farmland era finally died and the family sold the land to developers? I was not sure but I marveled at how long that orchard stood. Eventually the valley and West LA, with all their citrus and produce farms would also pivot their land to homes in the post WW2 boom. However, Sunkist is still in business as citrus continues to grow in California. When I buy my produce from a stall at Farmers Market (on 3rd) they pack it in the boxes that deliver their stock. Last weekend my food was packed in a Sunkist box with art work depicting navel oranges.
I didn’t need to go to the bank today, but I decided to return to the corner where 8 months ago I talked to the parking attendant on that lonely day in the middle of covid. Today It was about 30 degrees hotter and 80 percent more traffic. People were walking down the street, enjoying the warm weather, some with masks some without. A man went to the ATM wearing his mask which I guess was silly. The parking attendant was busy with clients. I didn’t come to see her today, I went to the fruit vendor.
Because the fruit vendor had her mask on I chose to wear mine to be respectful. I ordered a fruit bowl. She turned to me and asked, “What fruit?” Such an easy question now in 2021. I thought of Wolfskill born in 1798 when the nation was young and he could afford to be a man of vision and could make opportunities out of fruit thousands of miles from Kentucky. Did he thank the Tongva men and women who nurtured the Valencias that then provided him those opportunities? What were their opportunities? My skin was hot and sticky, the weather report said it would be 100 this week. How hot was it in Riverside when Eliza, in her thick Victorian dresses, decided to be visionary? Did her hands adjust her multiple slips when she bent down and planted her seedling that would launch an entire industry? The same hands that would never cast a ballot before she died in 1898. Had she lived to be a hundred she would have voted but she would have also seen her utopian citrus gets replaced with utopian houses. The brakes of a car squealed, I jumped back. The vendor did not jump, I guess like the man on Martel who was numb to the yelling man, she too grew accustomed to the loud noises when working on a street. “I’ll take watermelon, jicama and orange.” Her knife went to work. I paid for the fruit bowl and wished it was not in plastic but still I was happy to help her business. I got in the car and while I drove back home, the smell of orange and fresh squeezed lime wafted up from the center console that was holding my plastic bowl of fruit. My eyes feasted on people walking and driving in front of me. Los Angeles was opening up, today on June 15, 2021.
I loved this. Did you know that because Southern California was planted in oranges it made it ripe for development? That’s because orange groves need to be razed and replanted every so often. So when the trees are cut down, property owners have a chance to reassess what they want to use the land for. A great resource is Trees in Paradise: A California History by Jared Farmer. You can borrow it when you come to Ojai!
That is very interesting. Is it true for all citrus trees? I think about all the orange trees in people’s backyards that are 50 years old now. Although they were not used for commercial purposes.