Downtown property owners say they are creeped out and irritated by the regular presence of fruit thieves in their neighborhood — people who sneak onto properties and strip trees of their fruit, which the residents believe is then sold elsewhere.
Over the past few years, they say, people on foot, on bikes and in cars have been taking fruit from people's front yards — and, in at least one case, from backyards as well. The most popular fruit to be stolen is persimmons, which will ripen all over the neighborhood in a few weeks.
The pilfering isn't a serious enough crime for police to dedicate a lot of resources to stopping it. But it's enough to be an annoyance for neighbors, who say they wouldn't mind so much if they were asked first.
After posting on the neighborhood e-mail list, the Voice received eight reports of fruit trees being stripped without permission in the area surrounding View, Bush and Loreto streets.
Downtown resident Bruce Karney said that up until 2000, people would ask to pick his persimmon tree. Now they are stripping his apple tree as well, without asking.
"I'm angry about it," he said, adding that he once saw a fruit thief drive up in a Mercedes Benz.
"Creepy is a good word" to describe it, said one downtown resident, who had a persimmon tree in her unfenced backyard completely stripped of its persimmons last year. The thieves squashed her landscaping in the process when they stacked stones to get high enough to reach every piece of fruit.
The woman, who wished to be anonymous, filed a police report in which she estimated the damage and the fruit to be worth $400.
"Apparently there's some kind of underground persimmon market," she said. "Persimmons are particularly attractive to some people. I'm mad about it for various reasons."
Many neighbors say they are afraid that the thieves will become emboldened if left unchecked.
Bush Street resident Anne Urban remembers walking out her front door one afternoon last fall to see a man in her persimmon tree in her front yard. "I yelled at him," Urban said. "The annoying part was that he laughed. He didn't run away fast until I started chasing him."
Noam Livnat, leader of the Old Mountain View Neighborhood Association, wrote about the "fruit thieves in our midst" in the association's September newsletter. Livnat said he'd caught a woman red-handed up in his fruit tree and had seen his neighbors chase some fruit thieves down his street.
"I'm concerned that those who drive here to steal fruit from front yards will move to stealing from back yards or from houses," Livnat wrote. "I haven't been worried about crime in the neighborhood and I'm not sure I am now, but I'm not as sanguine about it anymore."
In the newsletter, Livnat said that chasing the thieves from the neighborhood was "the neighborly thing to do."
"I think it's appropriate to chase them away," Karney agreed, adding that it might also be a good idea to "take their photographs, get license plate numbers and file a police report."
In an e-mail, police spokesperson Liz Wylie said that "the best course of action" is for homeowners to "call us as the picking is occurring so that we can do something about it." She said the fruit thieves may not be aware that what they are doing is not OK with the homeowner, and suggested that people put up signs with messages to the effect of "Please don't pick my fruit."
"If we caught somebody in the act, we would likely give them a warning, depending on the circumstances," Wylie said. "If somebody were to be arrested and it's under $50 worth (of fruit), the DA's office would prosecute it as an infraction, not a misdemeanor" — and that's if they chose to prosecute it at all.
Downtown neighbor Eugene Cordero had a different take on the situation.
"It's been my observation that there is more fruit rotting in our front yards than fruit picked by unwelcome guests," he wrote on the neighborhood e-mail list. "The real issue is the expanding divide between rich and poor. If people were not in such challenging times, they wouldn't resort to stealing food to feed their families."
The situation "illustrates an unwillingness to imagine what it's like to live on the other side of the street."
A local volunteer organization called Village Harvest will pick residents' fruit trees and donate the fruit to local food agencies. To learn more, visit www.villageharvest.org, call (888) fruit-411 or write firstname.lastname@example.org.