Building the City of Avocados

It’s been a couple weeks since we took down the 72u desired exhibition and it was definitely sad to see it go after a life too short. Now that the exhibit is over I thought it might be interesting to share some “behind the scenes” images of one of the pieces: City of Avocados. The journey to procure these avocados turned a half-day into an unexpected adventure.


If you didn’t get to see the exhibition, here’s an a description of the piece:

City of Avocados uses the fruit to offer viewers an opportunity to confront geographical biases. The included edit of avocados was collected and curated over a four day span from locations across LA as a tangible visualization of our own preconceptions about place. At first sight, the avocados share many things in common and in some instances may even be from the same tree or grower. However in choosing to reveal only the store and neighborhood from which the fruit was plucked, the exhibit asks how our perception of quality is related to its location. How do we judge an item from a corner store in a poor neighborhood as compared with a biodynamic avocado from an affluent neighborhood?

The elusive biodynamics

I started the journey at 9:30am leaving from Culver City for my first stop at Erewhon market in Venice. I’d been to Erewhon just three weeks earlier at which time I discovered biodynamic avocados, something that I’d never heard of before. I was prepared to buy one of these 5.99-per-pound specimens but when I arrived there were none to be found. I asked a employee about the lack of these avocados:

“We don’t have any more, they all burned…..the sun burned the crop. They were the best avocados I’ve ever had. All we have now are these hard-as-a-rock organic avocados.”

With a sigh I replied: “I guess I’ll never get to try one of those amazing biodynamic fruits. I’ll have to settle from one of these standard organic avocados.”

I could tell he felt for me. When I returned to the car to head to destination number two, the local public radio station was hosting a segment discussing the possibility of Venice breaking off from Los Angeles to become its own city. They were calling it the “Vexit”....ohhhhh Venice.

The second stop was Whole Foods in Beverly Hills. The LA area is huge – really big. By the time I made my second stop I had already driven 45 minutes.

I was expecting the Whole Foods in Beverly Hills to be my fanciest stop but Erewhon ended up easily taking that title. As it turned out, this Whole Foods was actually the least fancy I’d ever been to. This is not to say it was not a good store, but I was surprised at how understated – even normal – it was. Still, the avocados were 2.99 each. I grabbed one and moved on before the impulse to by some yerba mate or kombucha set in.

All of the stores were picked from Yelp with an effort to mix large corporate stores and small local markets. The third of these stores was supposed to be in Hollywood but ended up in what is labeled “Central LA”. Since I was focusing on name-brand neighborhoods I had to do a new search and ended up at “Produce For Less” a small market on Melrose in Hollywood. I parked right in front where I was immediately surprised to have a man in an apron from the store knocking on my car window. “No park here…..too long….get ticket.” Then he pointed at a lot just to the left. “Free….!” That’s customer service: Coming out to stop your customers from getting a parking ticket! This market had great looking avos for only 79¢! Talk about living up to your store’s name. This ended up being the least expensive avocado of the journey. However, since they seemed to be ripping apart a dysfunctional cash register, perhaps they are charging too little?

Believe it or not I’m 2 hours into this adventure and only half complete. My fourth stop was at La Guadalupana Market in Echo Park. The first thing to know about this market is that it’s hard to find since a giant tree completely a large portion of the front of the building. New customers these days need to look for a large “LG” and a partially covered Lady of Guadalupe.

I wanted to spend some time in this store but the day was slipping by so I headed straight to the avocados which were a cool $1.99 each. After checkout, I stopped at a small venerable shrine consisting of a two-foot Lady of Guadalupe statue encased in plexiglass. Why don’t all grocery stores have shrines? I need to go back to this store later.

Stop five was in the primarily hispanic East Los Angeles area. Like much of LA, everything in this neighborhood is very spread out and there’s a sense that no structure ever gets demolished, you just build something new next to whatever is already there creating a hodgepodge of single-level business architecture. A block might combine an auto repair shop that looks like it was started in the 50’s sandwiched between two semi-modern chain stores followed by a huge completely-empty former diner turned 99¢ store, followed by a school and then a gas station on the corner. The store in this neighborhood was called La Poblana Market.

This store had only very ripe non-organic avocados so I had to search just to find one that would last in the exhibition. Everything inside was in Spanish and when I approached the counter, the woman greeted me with a “Buenos Tardes.” Did I have have to dust off my Spanish for this transaction? “Hola!” I replied. “You speak Spanish?” “Un Poco” That ended up being the extent of the conversation. Lucky for me since I was surely seconds from embarrassing myself in Spanish.

The final stop was in Compton. If you are wondering whether this piece was effective in engaging people on neighborhood bias I point you to the Compton avocado. Be it from rap lyrics or that fact that Compton has been on lists of “The most dangerous cities in the US, people have strong preconceptions about this place. I really didn’t know what to expect as I entered this city but as you might imagine, it doesn’t look that different from much of Los Angeles. It’s sprawling single-story houses, businesses, dry lawns (if any) and lots of bars on windows and yards. As with all places in the world, people are living their life doing whatever they need to do. 

I headed to one of the larger grocery stores in the area: Superior Grocers. They had two types of Avocados: “Large” ones (which were actually just regular size) for $1.50 and a smaller version for only .25¢ each! The store had all kinds of treasures including many varieties of cactus bits and Mexican versions of Ho-Hos. I had to get back to the gallery, so I didn’t linger. With my final avocado – catching a last glimpse of the legendary Compton – I started my return journey. I bet you didn’t know that Compton has an airport?

other treasures

As stated above, the piece definitely achieved its goal. People were surprised by how similar and/or different each of the avocados were and questions often had less to do with the avocado and more to do with the neighborhood. In the end I learned one thing that I hadn’t expected: Driving around a city to acquire and compare a common product, avocado or otherwise, is a great way to see places you’d otherwise ignore. I recommend it.