Nut-Picking Has Neighbors Fuming -- Complaints Sour Scramble For Sweet Treats

On a tree-lined boulevard atop Queen Anne Hill, small numbers of women carry sticks and buckets and pace back and forth, patiently waiting for the chestnuts to fall.

Occasionally, they look up into the trees, listening carefully for squirrels that might help dislodge the delicacies they are there to collect.

The pickers are mostly older Korean immigrants who speak limited, if any, English. For the past several years , they have been coming to Bigelow Avenue North to harvest chestnuts, which normally fall in October.

Bigelow's trees, which have edible nuts, were planted by the city in 1916. They differ from horse-chestnut trees elsewhere in the city that have larger, inedible nuts.

One picker is an 81-year-old woman who lives in an apartment complex in the International District and has been taking the bus to Bigelow Avenue North for the past six years, picking chestnuts for exercise. She considers the sweet, smooth, round nut a precious treat to be eaten with rice or roasted as a snack.

To some, the image of the women, often clad in rubber boots and gloves for protection from the prickly husks, is peculiar, but pleasant.

But not everyone finds the annual throng of visitors endearing.

Lisa King, who lives on Bigelow Avenue North, can't wait for the chestnut season to end.

She and her neighbors don't mind the nut-picking, she says. The disrespect and destruction of private property that they say goes with the chestnut season upset her.

Neighbors upset

Residents accuse the pickers - groups of 20 to 30 arrive at the harvest's peak - of trespassing, throwing rocks, gathering at all hours of the night with flashlights and using residents' yards as bathrooms.

"I watched one woman drop her drawers right outside my window," says King. "They're very brazen about it."

Residents also fear pickers who run in front of traffic to retrieve nuts will be hit by a car. That's seen more frequently this year because of a poor harvest, says H. Nishimura of Bellevue, who also comes to gather nuts.

"With no wind or rain, it's feast or famine," he says. "That's why the early birds get here before 5 a.m. to pick chestnuts."

Numerous trespassing complaints to the police prompted the city's Parks and Recreation Department to post signs at each end of Bigelow last year.

The signs, written in English, Korean, and three other Asian languages, encourage pickers to respect private property, to gather nuts only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., to avoid climbing trees or throwing things into them and to wear reflective clothing when it's dark.

Some improvement

"We're not saying they can't pick," says Andy Reynolds, a department spokesman. "We just want them to do it safely and respectfully."

But aside from installing the signs and trimming the trees last year to keep people from climbing them and breaking branches, the city hasn't done much, King says.

This year, though, has been better than most because the women no longer use private lawns as toilets, King says. She has seen them use a portable toilet set up at a construction site down the street.

Nishimura sympathizes with King.

"I don't blame residents for being angry," he says. "I bet they hate to see autumn come. When the cops come, they (the nut pickers) shrug, play dumb and say they don't understand."

But Maxine Chan, who works in the crime-prevention unit of the Seattle Police Department, believes only a small percentage of the women disobey the rules. Chan, who does not speak Korean, says she was able to convey the rules to the pickers despite the language barrier.

And just as the residents have mixed feelings about the pickers, the pickers have differing views of the Bigelow residents.

One picker said some residents are nasty and should be avoided.

Others, the 81-year-old woman said, are more welcoming. They open their gates to the harvesters, allowing them to pick the nuts out of their yards because they don't eat them themselves, she said.