Waste, Glorious Waste 

Tales of urban grubbing in the land of conspicuous consumption.

Page 6 of 7

A neighborhood of some seventy square blocks in the north Oakland flatlands, Greater Temescal spans more contradictions than most. Originally farmland, it was largely settled by Italian immigrants who planted fruit trees and cultivated large gardens. They even made wine, roping off blocks for yearly grape-crushing festas. Today the fast-revitalizing 'hood is dotted with both subsidized housing and chic restaurants; multifamily compounds and big-ticket loft condos; not to mention a dense inventory of modest 1920s-era stucco bungalows edging toward the million-dollar price range.

Temescal finds itself fertile ground for a new debate about urbanism, one that's gotten ugly in the two years since Temescal Amity Works started parking its fruit cart out front for neighbors to help themselves. The debate pits development proponents against more progressive residents concerned with sustainability, access to green space, and making the neighborhood self-sufficient for residents.

Late last year, the two sides faced off over a 67-unit development proposed for a weedy empty lot at 51st and Telegraph where a porn theater once stood. The so-called Civiq project was stalled for months while the factions bickered over a five-foot difference in the height of the five-story project.

A potentially poisonous atmosphere for an experiment in social sculpture, you might think — or perhaps the Big Backyard Project is just what the neighborhood needed. "I think it's a wonderful idea," says Jeff Norman, a Temescal historian and self-described community artist. "Conceptually, I don't know to what extent it's been realized."

Norman is skeptical about the notion of social sculpture, or that the artists' little experiment has really changed the neighborhood in any significant way. Things like fruit exchanges between neighbors probably happen in a lot of places, he says, but he thinks Cockrell and Purves are helping keep things real during a difficult period.

"I think it's a really cool idea," Charlie Hallowell says. "It's a thousand times more interesting and righteous than what 99 percent of people in America are doing." Hallowell is the chef and owner of Pizzaiolo, a restaurant on Telegraph that shares an alley with Temescal Amity Works. Sometimes, when Cockrell and Purves have more lemons or apples than people will take, Hallowell uses the excess fruit in his restaurant.

Like many neighborhood residents interviewed, Hallowell seems to like knowing that Temescal Amity Works exists, even if he hasn't actively gotten involved. It's the idea that matters. "It's nice," he says. "It's not motivated by profit or what they can get out of the neighborhood."

"It felt like a neighborhood revival indicator," says Adriana Taranta, describing how Cockrell and Purves picked lemons and limes from her yard twice over the past two years. For Taranta, it began as a desperate attempt to find a solution to a prolific old lemon tree. "But it wasn't really the answer to our big lemon problem," she admits. The artists took just enough fruit to make a big batch of mixed-citrus marmalade; Taranta came home later to find jars of marmalade on her front steps. She says she felt the jam, which contained fruit from different neighbors' trees, was symbolic of a connection with people she didn't even know. "It makes me hopeful that I'll connect with people in the future,' she says.

On Webster Street, Cockrell stops the cart in front of their first stop. The homeowner said he'd leave a box of oranges on the porch, but there are two Pampers boxes full of tangerines. "What a find," Cockrell says. Purves hoists one of the boxes and starts filling the baskets with fruit. "It's nice to put them out," Cockrell says.

"It's a visual symbol," Purves says.

Cockrell steers the cart toward the address of the black-walnut donor a few blocks away. A young woman on a bicycle stops. "Amity?" she asks.

"Want some tangerines?" Purves offers. The woman fills her pockets. "I love that you guys are doing this," she says.

On 49th Street, a woman in a baseball cap pokes her head out of an upstairs window to watch the cart. "We got tangerines today," Purves yells up. The woman runs out the front door holding an enormous lemon from her neighbor's tree. Purves drops it into one of the baskets; the woman makes a hammock out of her T-shirt to hold a couple of handfuls of fruit. "Oh my God, that's so fabulous," she says. "When global civilization collapses we'll all be able to survive!"

The black walnuts turn out to be a tease. The dark, leafy tree towers over the back of the house — "Oh, Jesus," Purves groans when he sees it — but the woman who offered the nuts isn't home, and the back gate is locked. "Oh, well," Cockrell says, sounding relieved. She turns the cart around to return to the Amity Works storefront. Tomorrow, Saturday — the one day of the week they're open — they'll park the cart out front with its baskets of tangerines for anyone to take.

An African-American kid with braids, a huge backpack, and a spangly silver watchband saunters by slowly. He seems curious and cautious. "Want some tangerines?" Purves asks cheerily.

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