Ripe for a Party
by Denise Cowie
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Friday, September 7, 2001
The Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden will celebrate 25 lush years. It's taken some hard work, and lots of lobbying.
Back in 1976, when Philadelphia's neighborhoods were sprucing themselves up for the Bicentennial, the big empty space on Christian Street near Third was nothing more than a vacant lot, full of weeds, that hadn't been used in years.
Hardly an urban oasis.
But the gardeners of the Queen Village Neighbors Association looked at that barren cityscape and saw the potential for a wonderful community garden - a common backyard for the land-poor rowhouse and apartment dwellers of Queen Village and Southwark.
Old-timers and newcomers to the gentrifying neighborhood worked side by side to make their vision a reality, clearing the site and digging the unyielding ground.
"When we started, one of our major tools was a pick, for turning the soil over," recalls Libby Goldstein, a ceramist from Queen Village who was a driving force behind the garden's creation.
Later this month, the Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden will mark a quarter-century of planting on the site with a silver-jubilee celebration for community gardeners past and present, as well as neighbors, friends and well-wishers.
Holding on to the land wasn't always easy.
Without "a handful of intrepid gardeners with a passion for their sacred space," the greenery could easily have been lost to development, says Audrey Lisowski, who joined two years ago.
Over the years, the politically savvy band enlisted the help of such allies as former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, then-U.S. Rep. Thomas Foglietta, and Sen. Arlen Specter in their efforts to stop the federal government from selling off the site as "excess property." Along the way, the garden's advocates were instrumental in the birth of the Neighborhood Gardens Association, a nonprofit land trust that helps protect Philadelphia's community gardens.
"Gardening in the city is a political act," Goldstein, a veteran of all the battles, says somewhat dryly. "There's no question about that."
Today, the garden numbers doctors, architects, schoolteachers, domestic workers, salesclerks, home-health workers, and retirees among the 74 people who tend 65 plots on more than 18,000 square feet of open space. In age, the gardeners range from college students to senior citizens, and there's always a waiting list.
The now-rich soil yields produce in such supply that the bounty is shared with scores of families in the neighborhood, and there's often some left to donate to Philabundance.
"You can grow a lot of stuff in a plot this size," says Saundres Bradley, 65, gesturing at the large central space where he has been nurturing vegetables since 1976. He figures he spends about two hours a day in his garden, where this year he grew tomatoes, okra, turnips, cucumbers, beans, peas, and peppers of many varieties. Success has depended on keeping it all watered, especially through the heat wave and dry spells that have wilted plants this summer.
"You should watch him sow seeds," Goldstein says of Bradley, whose roots go back to farming in the South. "He drops them with one hand and covers them with the other. It's like a dance - no motion is wasted."
Along one side of the garden, a community orchard - one of the first in the city - provides apples, peaches, plumcots, Asian pears, and figs. The berry patch yields raspberries. A grape arbor, shading a scarred old table and chairs, drips with ripe bunches, tempting gardeners taking a break from the sun to snack as they chat. There are also a community herb garden, shared flower beds, and several hives of honeybees that pollinate the plants and are tended by David Goltra.
On Sept. 29, when partygoers celebrate the jubilee, they'll eat barbecue prepared by Bradley, Yvonne Howard and Cynthia Lafferty in two large pits that have long provided an anchor for the garden's social life: Birthdays and even a wedding party have been held here.
"People don't have big yards, so this is our 'estate,' " says Lafferty, a Pennsport resident who planted her first plot in 1982.
Fifteen years ago, there was almost a birth here, too.
"I went into labor with my first child in the garden," says Carla Puppin, now the unofficial archivist. She wasn't about to let pregnancy keep her from gardening, and after working a couple of hours one morning, she went into labor. Her daughter Gabriella was born at 4:30 that afternoon. It wasn't too long before she was working alongside her mother.
The Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden was a success from the beginning. In 1977, just a year after it began, it became one of the early demonstration sites of the Penn State Extension Service's Urban Gardening Program, offering classes on recycling, food production, and nutrition. Philadelphia Green and other organizations provided technical help.
With Queen Village's gentrification, the garden was one of the first places where old and new residents could meet and work together, Goldstein says.
But the gardeners were always aware that the land where they were putting down roots was not theirs. Even vacant lots have owners, and they saw other gardens razed for development. So they were already exploring ways to acquire the land when suddenly, in 1983, the lot was put up for sale by the federal government.
Thanks to the intervention of politicians from Pennsylvania, the Reagan administration agreed in 1985 that the National Park Service could lease the land to the city for 10 years. And in 1991, at the request of Goode and others, the Park Service and the General Services Administration deeded the garden to the city in perpetuity, as long as it is used for recreational activities.
Meanwhile, as a result of the gardeners' initial explorations of land ownership, the Neighborhood Gardens Association/Philadelphia Land Trust was incorporated in 1986 and set about helping to preserve other community gardens started on abandoned land.
The Southwark/Queen Village group still doesn't own its garden. Instead, the city leases it to the Neighborhood Gardens Association and the gardeners run it, says Goldstein, who became a board member.
The garden has changed over the years. Today's gardeners are more likely to wrap their time there around busy careers. Gone are many of the elderly gardeners who spent all day among the plots. Remaining on the books, though, is a quirky bylaw that once warned fishermen: "No digging for worms."
The most beloved creature ever to grace the garden was probably Maxine, a neighborhood cat who adopted it as her personal turf in 1989. She was intensely interested in everything the gardeners did, and occasionally climbed onto bent-over backs to get a better look at whatever they were digging.
"Try picking radishes with a cat on your back," Goldstein quips. Maxine died in 1997 and was buried under the fig trees.
A huge mural - created by artist Isaiah Zagar, one of the originators of the South Street Renaissance, to mark the garden's 20th birthday - fills a wall on the west side of the garden. Cast in stone there are some notable names, including that of Ernesta Ballard, the visionary who began Philadelphia Green (and may be at the jubilee party). Prominent among them is Maxine's.
Somehow, that seems like proof of Goldstein's words: The garden "provides not only food, but spiritual nourishment to all of us."
How to Start a Community Garden in Philadelphia
by Libby J. Goldstein
There's a weedy, nasty vacant lot in your neighborhood. You meet with your neighbors. You've all seen community gardens around town and decide you want one. What do you do next?
1. Call Neighborhood Gardens Association/ A Philadelphia Land Trust 215-988-8800. Ask for "How to Obtain Permission to Garden on a Neighborhood Vacant Lot". NGA can also help you negotiate a lease with the owner (if necessary) or even acquire the land for yourselves (if you're interested).
2. Figure out the street address(-es) of the lot by looking at the addresses of the houses around it. You'll need the exact address to get on with the process.
3. Get the owner's permission.
4. Call Philadelphia Green at 215-988-8800. They may be able to help you with things like fencing, soil and tools.
5. Call Penn State's Urban Gardening Program 215-471-2224. Garden Advisors and Master Gardeners bring you great advice and publications on everything from organizing your gardeners to building fences with recycled lumber.
6. Write some rules so everyone knows what's expected.
7. Add organic matter:
* free compost Fairmount Park Recycling Center 215-685-0109
* mushroom compost (not free): Joe Leo, Inc. 610-444-3892
* manure: "Carriages-Horse, Riding Academies" in the Yellow Pages
Pigeon Peas & Banana Trees
by Libby J. Goldstein
You can see the flow of people and their plants in gardens. Fava beans arose in Egypt and moved to China, Italy and Britain. Gardeners with roots in all those countries grow them here. I grow the black radish, sorrel and pattypan squash we ate at home.
Southeast Asians brought seeds with them in the 1970's. They plant lemon and Thai basil in "crazy mixed up" beds with mustards, ginger, gourds and beans. Their gardens, and many more, can be seen at Common Ground Community Garden at Island Avenue and Bartram Road in Southwest Philadelphia. Farther along Island Avenue are traditional Southern Italian gardens.
At 64th and Market Streets, you can see African American and Korean gardens and their interplay. Many African Americans plant peanuts, collards and, sometimes, cotton and tobacco "for the kids to see and remember" on raised rows, a West African style. Korean garden beds include hot peppers, huge radishes and greens in profusion.
2305-13 North Palethorpe Street is Puerto Rico in Philadelphia: a poultry casita, containers, pigeon peas, even bananas, while on 6th Street just below Lehigh, Filipino gardeners grow bitter melon on overhead trellises with yardlong beans.
Philadelphia gardens, like their gardeners, spring from diverse roots.
Libby J. Goldstein was a founder of the Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden in 1976 and became the first coordinator of Penn State's Urban Gardening Program in 1977. She assisted in the development of over 100 community vegetable gardens in Latino neighborhoods between 1983 and 1987. Goldstein wrote the weekly "City Gardener" for the Philadelphia Daily News from 1977 to 1987 and is now president of the Food & Agriculture Task Force.
Philadelphia's Community Garden History
by Libby J. Goldstein
In 1897, 56th & Haverford was divided into 1/5th acre plots by the Philadelphia Vacant Lot Cultivation Association to afford gardening space in Philadelphia because "great distress prevailed in our city on account of lack of employment".
The Vacant Lot Cultivation Association provided land and technical assistance through at least 1919, encouraging children to garden and adults to begin for-profit market gardens on lots throughout Philadelphia.
From 1976 until 1989, Penn State Urban Gardening Program sponsored a half-acre community garden at 56th & Haverford. The area was gardened, developed, de-developed, gardened and, finally, redeveloped in one century.
During both World Wars, the government advocated vegetable gardening so that more farm products could be sent to the military. I remember 200 to 300 square foot plots in Fairmount Park not far from the old Woodside Park. Not so generous as the early "farms", but big enough for a family of four.
In 1953, Louise Bush-Brown organized settlement house workers, and garden clubs into the Neighborhood Gardens Association to sponsor horticultural beautification programs in low income neighborhoods and at public housing projects. Neighbors on the 700 block of Mercy Street, became "The first Garden Block in America" when they planted window boxes built at St Martha's Settlement.
Vacant lot gardens were added in 1960 through 4-H, Cooperative Extension's youth program led by William A. White. Some of today's active community gardeners like Alta Felton and Mabel Wilson began gardening in public with NGA. It had seen 850 blocks planted by its 25th anniversary in 1978 shortly before becoming part of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Philadelphia Green Program.
The most recent rash of "farming out" on vacant lots began in the Green 70's. 4-H gardens were growing vegetables as well as flowers. The Recreation Department was helping neighborhoods change vacant lots into flower and vegetable gardens, tot lots and basketball courts. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society began developing community vegetable gardens, and Penn State Urban Gardening Program provided technical assistance. By the late 80's, over 1000 vacant lots had become vegetable and ornamental gardens.
Farming out in the 90's is more than a great way to keep vacant lots clean, more than a source of food and flowers. It is a strategy for neighborhood development and organization.
Urban Agriculture in Philadelphia
Much of Philadelphia was built after the turn of the century, with the population finally peaking in 1950 at about two million. Since then it has dropped back to just over one and a half million, not much more than in 1900.
This loss of people and housing leaves a lot of open space for urban agricultural development. The hundreds of garbage strewn vacant lots (sometimes constituting 50 percent of a city block's area) have stimulated citizens to create what has been called "the largest comprehensive urban greening program in North America."
According to Libby J. Goldstein, president, Food & Agriculture Task Force, Philly's 501 community vegetable gardens produced $1,948,633 worth of fruit and vegetables in 1994. A total of 2812 families (12,093 individuals) are involved in the vegetable gardens.
Philadelphia has a wide range of service groups dedicated to helping urban food gardeners, most acclaimed being Philadelphia Green, Penn State Urban Gardening Program and the Neighborhood Gardens Association.
Philadelphia Green, part of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, started in 1974 with a staff of two. Twenty years later 40 employees work with more than 1,100 neighborhood groups, corporations and government organizations on nearly 2,000 greening projects.
For more information call 215-988-8800
or write to:
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society
100 N. 20th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103-1495
The Neighborhood Gardens Association's goal is the long term preservation of community gardens. Most community gardeners do not own the land they garden and are always at risk of being asked to leave the land. In the last few years more than five acres of gardens in Philadelphia have been built upon or developed for other uses. The NGA battles against this trend, thus far acquiring a total of 16 gardens.
Neighborhood Gardens Association / A Philadelphia Land Trust
100 N. 20th Street, Suite 309
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Web Site: www.ngalandtrust.org
Penn State's Urban Gardening Program was established in 1977 as part of a 6-city federal demonstration program that also included Boston, Detroit, LA, Houston and New York City. These programs were operated by Cooperative Extension. Today the program is still active in Philadelphia and Chester where workshops are held throughout the growing season.
Penn State Urban Gardening Program
4601 Market St. 3d Fl
Philadelphia PA 19139