I’ve lived in Fresno for most of my life. Despite that, I’d never visited the Forestiere Underground Gardens before LGBT Fresno invited me to join their tour.
The place is easy to miss; it sits on West Shaw, right by the 99. The sign for the Gardens blends into the rest of the billboards that dot Fresno. From the sidewalk outside, you can see a Lutheran Church, an auto shop, and an In-n-Out Burger. Stretch your neck a little and a Carl’s Jr. pops into view. The spot itself is surrounded by a chain-link fence, partially overgrown by trees and vines. It doesn’t seem like the place you’d find an official historical landmark or an agricultural engineering masterpiece that has persisted for about a century.
Once inside, the notion quickly fades.
An attendant asks me a few questions and offers me a green colored popsicle stick, explaining that it marks me for the 11:45 A.M. tour. I tell him that I’m here for an event and he apologizes, leading me to my group. We pass around introductions—the organization’s higher ups, Andrea and Jason, are two of the only people here, so far—and wait for our tour. It’s a comfortable wait; there’s a latticework canopy over the walkway, pale-green vines filling in the blank spaces between the wood. Our tour guide appears, pointing out that the vines aren’t fully grown, yet. Sure enough, a close look reveals little bushels of stems with tiny green nubs at the end, smaller than a grain of rice. Bees buzz around us, jumping from flower to flower. I’m not used to seeing this much green in Fresno’s city limits, especially after all the droughts.
I find myself taking pictures and listening in on conversations, quickly realizing that most of our group has never been here before, despite having lived in Fresno all their lives. Our group swells. People split off into their own cliques and, before long, the tour guide ushers us down the staircase to the lobby to pay for our tickets. We mull about there for a while. There’s a small, unobtrusive gift shop sitting catty-corner from a much bigger bulletin board packed with information about the gardens and their creator. There’s even a soil sample from his now-deserted hometown of Filari, in northeastern Sicily. There’s a gorgeous ballroom adjacent, but it looks like we aren’t supposed to go there, just yet.
A wrought-iron fence separates the lobby from the main tunnel network, its iron bars bent and twisted like vines, hung with white and violet lights in the shape of grapes. It’s there that our tour guide ushers us, and the group gathers for a picture. I manage to wheedle my way out of it, somehow. I’ve never been a big fan of photos.
Our guide gives us the ground rules. They’re what you’d expect from a place like this: keep up with the tour, no running and jumping on the scenery, and no pull-ups on the arches.
“Wait, no pull-ups?”
The tour guide nods and says that she’d caught a full-grown woman doing pull ups from one of the arches last summer, right at the beginning of the tour. After leading us inside, she points out the spot. I make a mental note not to follow her example. Then, I take a look at the room.
It’s gorgeous, and much more spacious than you’d expect, being underground. The tour guide calls it the “Trinity Courtyard.” A three-pointed planter stands in the middle of the room with three small trees, and I can see tunnels leading off in a few directions. Some sunlight makes its way in, just enough for a pleasant sort of warmth. The last few stragglers make it inside; a woman with two young, energetic kids, who I hope heard her speech about not playing on the planters or doing pull-ups on the arches. Finally, the tour guide starts telling us about the gardens. Which, really, is telling us about its creator, Baldassare Forestiere.
Baldassare is an archetype of the American success story. He was a Sicilian immigrant who came to the United States around the turn of the 19th century to become a citrus farmer but had the bad luck to land in Boston. For those that haven’t been to Boston, it’s extremely cold, and cold doesn’t play well with citrus fruits. As such, Baldassare got work as a tunnel builder until he moved to Orange county. Thing is, Orange County is expensive, especially for an immigrant working on a former tunnel builder’s salary. Still, he kept working.
Luckily, Baldassare heard about some other place. Somewhere the land was cheap, the soil healthy. The adverts read: “Build your own American Dream in the heart of the Golden State!”
They were talking about Fresno.
Fresno was tiny back then, and hardly on anyone’s radar, enough-so that Baldassare bought 80 acres of land for a $1.50 an acre. In today’s money, that’s a little less than $40 per acre.
Unfortunately, there was a reason for the killer deal. Soon after he started digging, Baldassare encountered hardpan, one of the hardest sedimentary rocks known to humankind. Usually, people don’t bother going at it with traditional tools. They hack a small hole in the rock, jam a stick of dynamite in there, then run for cover. But, Baldassare didn’t have the money or expertise for that kind of operation. The man didn’t have any formal education to speak of, and had bought this land because it was the cheapest he could find. Luckily, Baldassare was persistent. He got a job as a ditch digger while thinking of a way to deal with the hardpan.
Then, things got worse. While climate change hadn’t yet turned Fresno’s summers into the skin-searing misery they are today, they still climbed well into the triple digits with astonishing regularity. Coming from a temperate island like Sicily, Baldassare was ill-equipped to deal with Fresno’s blasting heat. So, in mid-1906, he decided to do something crazy: he built a hole for himself on his property and lived in it, away from the heat. His plan worked like a charm.
More than that, it got him thinking: “If I can live down here, why can’t my plants?”
At this point, our tour party is enraptured by the story. Even the kids have gone quiet, though their occasional questions prompt a gentle “shush” from their mother. I, myself, am struggling to keep up on my notes.
The tour guide, then, repeats the name of our courtyard (the Trinity Courtyard) and gestures to the three trees and points on the planter. Apparently Baldassare was a devout Catholic with an obsession for two biblical numbers in particular: threes and sevens. He tried to include this sort of religious imagery in his work as much as possible, believing that it would confer a blessing on his efforts.
With that seed planted in our minds, the tour guide leads us onward. She takes us through a tunnel, surprisingly dark and close, lit by electric candles and light beaming in through a few small windows; exactly three between the Trinity Courtyard and our next stop. I feel my hair scrape the stone ceiling, and I’m not that tall. Apparently, Baldassare was 5’8”.
This room is much smaller. There’s an herb in a planter with seven divots on the side, and a skylight above and strangely off-center. The tour guide explains that herbs are delicate. Too much sunlight can be as detrimental as too little, so Baldassare thought ahead and built the skylight off-center, so that daylight could only strike the herb for part of the day. Standing under the skylight, I notice something else; the top is blocked with chicken wire. Another revelation from our guide: Baldassare was a prominent upcycler. The man never wasted anything. Every piece of equipment found re-use elsewhere. One last thing she mentions is that all the skylights are conical. This allowed them to serve as a climate control system, filling the place with a cool breeze in the summer and trapping heat in the winter.
The more I see, the more Baldassare’s genius becomes apparent. So too, does his religious imagery and tendency for reuse. It gives the whole structure a very “honest” quality. It’s well made, yes, but close inspection reveals jutting rebar, chicken wire, and barbed wire, thrown wherever it was needed with efficiency in mind, rather than aesthetics. I’m staring at some bare rebar when the guide mentions that Baldassare would cover the skylights with simple plate-glass when it rained, or to trap the heat. I write that down and duck under a tunnel passing three trees as we hit the next big segment of the tunnel network: the “Chapel Garden.” The name is accurate; there’s a genuine chapel with a bell strung above, which Baldassare used to conduct religious services for his neighbors, and his neighbors used as a doorbell when they came to visit. There’s even a vine that Baldassare got to grow through the sedimentary rock, which still stands to this day.
At this point, the guide mentions that Baldassare did most of this by himself, with hand tools. What’s more, he never wrote anything down. He never made blueprints or schedules or maps. When he was asked how he managed this by a Fresno Bee reporter, he’d answered: “The visions in my mind sometimes overwhelm me.” I’m left agape, and most of the tour group is scoffing in surprise.
We continue onward, seeing sight after sight. We’re shown a peephole in one of the lower levels, through which Baldassare could see the shoes of anyone on the upper level entryway. Back in his day, people didn’t own dozens of pairs of kicks. In fact, they were fairly easy to identify by their footwear, so Baldassare would glance up and use the shoes to see who’d come to visit before inviting them in.
There were little notches and holes in the rock. I run a hand along the stone—surprisingly smooth and incorrigibly hard. The notches above came from his pickaxe, and the group collectively agrees that they wouldn’t have even imagined making an effort like that. As for the holes, they come from the little lizards and garden snakes that sometimes burrow their way in. The kids in the group suddenly get excited.
Baldassare wasn’t just a master engineer; he was an agricultural scientist, too. In fact, by the end of his life, he’d mastered an agricultural technique known as “grafting,” where a farmer grafts multiple plants onto one root system, resulting in a tree that grows more than one kind of fruit. His magnum opus, as far as this art was concerned, was the Seven Variety Tree; a citrus tree growing seven different citrus fruits, including an 8-pound Cedro that broke the branch it had grown on. The tree sat at “level three down” of the Underground Gardens, nearly 24 feet below street level. It was noticeably cooler down there and, in a few areas where Baldassare had carved walkways that went even deeper, you could feel the atmosphere take on a muggy but refreshing sort of coolness.
As the end of the tour grew near, the guide showed us a few more things; the other side of the auto-tunnel, a beautiful garden that stayed healthy despite the drought. There, we saw some of the lizards. The kids went nuts, trying to find them and point them out to one another. I was just happy to see a lizard inside city limits. But, soon enough, the tour reached its end. We popped out in a giant ballroom with a tile floor that I thought was a modern addition. Nope. More of Baldassare’s work, with a beautiful compass rose laid dead-center.
Baldassare went to great lengths to make this tunnel network fit his dreams. He carved out a summer hut and a winter hut, and even a small, cozy study with a few rows of bookshelves embedded in the wall, one jutting out far enough to be used as a desk. The man was a big reader and installed electric lighting in that room so he could read late into the night. That wasn’t all, though; by this point, Baldassare had big dreams for his underground gardens. He’d dug out an auto-tunnel for guests and had begun to turn the place into a day-resort for his laborer friends. He’d prototyped a table that allowed an orange tree to grow through its center, providing food and shade, and the ballroom we saw at the end of the tour was likely to be the dining room for the restaurant he’d wanted to open.
The man left many things unfinished. That day-resort idea, for starters. The tunnel network is full of false endings and unfinished passages, and a few rooms can only be reached by crawling under the rocks. His personal life, too, had loose ends. While he supposedly had many girlfriends, Baldassare never married or had children. Luckily, his younger brother decided to preserve Baldassare’s work and passed it on to his kids when the stress of this work took its toll on Baldassare. At 67, he suffered a hernia while working on the Gardens. The operation to fix it was successful, but he contracted pneumonia during recovery and died shortly thereafter. It was quite a shock; his family was known for longevity, and his siblings and parents lived well into their nineties.
Still, the man left lessons for us, which the guide was kind enough to put into a single word: persist. Baldassare could have given up at any point. He could have given up in the Boston cold or the Fresno heat, at the high prices of Orange County or the obstructive hardpan under the Fresno soil. Instead, he kept moving. More than that, he tried his hardest to turn weaknesses to strengths. Look closely while you go through the gardens and you’ll see a delineating line where the smooth hardpan turns to jagged stone bricks. Those bricks are made from the very hardpan he’d chipped out with his pickaxe. That’s right: Baldassare took the hardpan that had blocked him and used it to make the walls of his home, creating an official historic landmark that persists to this day.
Most people can learn from the lessons of Baldassare. Everyone’s got something that stands in front of them, and this kind of persistence can help carry them through.