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.