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Lents grows a community orchard space

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Neighbors, volunteers and others gathered at the new orchard site on Saturday to celebrate despite rainy weather.Nearly a decade in the making, a 0.38-acre city property and once completely dilapidated site along the Springwater Corridor Trail now comes bearing fruit — literally.

The new Malden Court Community Orchard sits near the intersection of Southeast 87th Avenue and Southeast Flavel Street, and the rain didn’t stop the grand opening event there on Saturday. Many volunteers, neighbors, activists and city officials gathered in their rain coats to celebrate.

“It’s a magical place to be, right by the Springwater Corridor,” says Jalene Littlejohn, chair of Green Lents, which spearheaded the orchard’s establishment. Green Lents is a nonprofit founded in 2009 that works to “promote a culture of sharing and environmental sustainability in and around the Lents neighborhood.”

The orchard site, previously plagued by illegal dumping, drug use and nearby homeless encampments, was added to a “Diggable City” plan by Portland State University students in 2005.

However, it wasn’t until 2012 that Steve Cohen, food policy and programs manager at Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, was just driving around the neighborhood after visiting the area and saw a nearby neighbor’s vibrant garden of veggies.

He chatted them up, eventually coming in contact with community activists focused on the Lents area. This contact led to the leasing of the land from the city to Green Lents, and plans moved ahead — but not without the occasional obstacle.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Children enjoyed food and activities at the orchard grand opening on Saturday despite the rain. Organizers say the community space will offer educational opportunities for all ages.The area was covered in a massive thicket of blackberry bushes, which neighbors initially wanted to keep due to their 6-foot-high barrier, which acted somewhat as a fence of privacy. But planners and neighbors came to agreements, and volunteers used goats to help chomp away the brambles while folks from Wilderness International Youth Conservation dug out the roots.

Green Lents also faced an unusual obstacle: asbestos. A small amount was found in the soil at the site.

"We knew there was a lot of dumping in the area. We were concerned it was going to show high levels of toxins,” Cohen says. But the high levels they feared didn’t show in test results and the asbestos was removed with the help of a grant from the Department of Environmental Quality. The orchard received a clean bill of health — also known as a No Further Action declaration — from the DEQ on Aug. 31.

The project received grants from various sources to get things going and growing, including a $10,000 grant from the city’s Community Watershed Stewardship Program.

Grants were also given by the Portland Development Commission, which awarded funding for an irrigation system, and a grant from East Portland Action Plan for a gathering space at the site, where the group plans to hold educational workshops.

So far, outside of ongoing work parties, the orchard has had its first harvest, producing strawberries, raspberries, grapes and blueberries.

On a larger scale from fruit production, the site provides what Cohen says is a general sense of community and “placemaking in the best sense of the word.”

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Like the surroundng area, the site was overgrown with 6-foot-tall blackberry bushes. Volunteers used goats to help eat them away during cleanup. “Those are the opportunities we want to provide,” he says, adding that this project falls in line with the city’s comprehensive and climate plans.

It particularly promotes the goal of 20-minute neighborhoods, where people have relatively good, walkable access to commercial services and amenities.

Prior to the orchard, Lents had few options in that regard.

“The concept of a food desert gets kicked around a lot, but what’s available is just convenience stores — not fresh produce. So that was important to people,” says Alison Hilkiah, who has lived in Lents for the past eight years and is now the construction project manager as well as a volunteer at the orchard.

She revels in the fact that the Malden Court Community Orchard will be around for many years to come, a benefit compared to a community garden, which offer only annual crops.

“There are some community garden spaces, but you can’t plant something like an apple tree,” she says. The orchard will have a lease renewable in 10-year increments. “We can grow food for people long term.”

The orchard will be open to all, and similar to a regular city park, it will be open dawn to dusk. Nobody will be there on duty to let someone in, but there are posted rules to be followed.

“It’s overwhelming that this group of neighborhood residents were able to generate such community support and turn a nuisance eyesore into an oasis,” Cohen says. “An oasis and community amenity was their initial vision, and they were able to bring it to fruition.”

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