When Asheville resident Calvin Allen was growing up in Hillcrest Apartments, he remembers the neighborhood being a bit shadier.
“When I grew up here, there were a lot of fruit trees and shade trees, but a lot of them have been cut down now,” Allen says. “A lot of these kids now don’t have that connection to trees because there just aren’t hardly any trees around here anymore.”
Over the years, the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville has removed trees from Hillcrest, located next to future Interstate 26, for reasons including rot, potential damage to property and safety concerns. Other trees that weren’t cut down were trimmed back to prevent interference with the development’s security cameras, reducing shade coverage. The result is a neighborhood that can feel a bit barren.
Allen says he and other residents knew that the environmental nonprofit Asheville GreenWorks had planted fruit trees in Pisgah View Apartments a few years ago and hoped to see a similar project come to their neighborhood. In fact, notes HACA project manager Samantha Bowers, the housing authority and GreenWorks have partnered to plant over 300 trees in public housing properties over the years. And according to Eric Bradford, volunteer coordinator for GreenWorks, planting an orchard in Hillcrest was on the top of the to-do list.
“Hillcrest doesn’t feel very inviting for the folks who live there,” Bradford notes. “There are tall fences around the neighborhood and cameras on all the buildings. Trees are restricted due to line of sight for the cameras, and it just looks very industrial. It doesn’t look like the home it is for all the people who live there.”
In March, GreenWorks was awarded a $20,000 TD Green Streets grant for urban forestry projects from TD Bank and the National Arbor Day Foundation. With help from the Hillcrest Residents’ Council and tenants including Allen, GreenWorks conducted a survey to gauge the public housing community’s interest in bringing an orchard to the development. A spot was soon selected — a vacant lot created when a row of apartments burned down in 2010.
“We did a lot of research, we talked to the community, we sampled the soil to make sure it was good,” Allen recalls. “It really took a lot of community input.”
The grant funded the purchase of 24 semidwarf apple trees — already capable of bearing fruit — and 36 blueberry bushes that were planted by Hillcrest residents, TD Bank employees and Asheville GreenWorks volunteers on Saturday, April 11. The 10-year-old apple trees, which grow no taller than 20 feet, will produce shade but won’t interfere with security cameras.
Bradford notes that no industrial sprays, pesticides or herbicides will be used in the orchard. While that may mean smaller apples with a few spots, it will also mean increased access to healthy foods in the low-income neighborhood that is isolated from grocery stores. And, Bradford continues, the yield produced in the orchard could become an ongoing revenue source for the community through distribution at local farmers markets. GreenWorks and the residents’ council are also pursuing a possible partnership with a local cider maker. “That’s why we consider this a long-term project — there’s lot of different ways it can go,” Bradford says. “People talk about wanting to buy local. You can’t get much more local than Hillcrest in the center of Asheville.”
In addition to being a production orchard, the goal is for the vacant lot to become a small park and community gathering space. The site plan, designed by Tom Mainolfi of Carolina Native Landscapes, also includes raised beds that will be constructed by GreenWorks volunteers, benches that will be built by students from Green Opportunities and a pollinator garden, all being installed later this summer. Bradford adds that GreenWorks will also plant climbing plants along the surrounding fence to help block out noise from I-26.
Hillcrest’s orchard will be the sixth community orchard that GreenWorks has installed in the city. HACA CEO Gene Bell notes that the transformation of the vacant lot is a “really important project” for the development. “It’s a great opportunity for the community both in Hillcrest and outside Hillcrest to see the positive things that are happening in these public housing communities,” Bell says.
Allen adds that residents also plan to use the space to honor Hillcrest residents who have passed away, including community organizers and a former day care center teacher, through memorial plaques on each of the trees.
While GreenWorks will remain involved as a source of support, Hillcrest residents will also be maintaining the orchard. The TD Green Streets grant provided for GreenWorks’ inaugural TreeKeepers Conference in late March where five Hillcrest residents, including Allen, were trained by local arborists and landscape professionals on proper techniques for tree planting and care and how to select native plants for landscapes. Grant funds will also compensate the five Hillcrest treekeepers for their time as they care for the new trees throughout the summer.
“We have trees now, but not a lot of shade,” Allen says. “It’ll be a great place where you can just go sit in the shade and be able to lose yourself cause you’re surrounded by trees. Well, as much as you can lose yourself when you’re right next to a highway.”
A public gathering and celebration of the orchard will be held this fall. The Hillcrest Fall Harvest Festival will include family activities, an apple press and a pop-up farmers market and is tentatively scheduled for Oct 3.