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Guerrilla Gardening in North Philadelphia Tackles Food Insecurity and Education.

Guerrilla Gardening in North Philadelphia Tackles Food Insecurity and Education.

Joe Harrison hosts a reading of his book, Little Joey Starts a Farm, to a group of children at Pleasant Playground in North Philadelphia.

by 2BD

What’s fairly evident to the naked eye and consistent throughout the composition of the city is the amount of vacant property it harbors. Lots, parcels, side yards, and more, and plenty by the acre. While the term vacant can be broad and can encompass a lot of activity that isn’t always the easiest to determine at one time, there is a whole lot of it.

Whether it’s owned by the city, publicly, or privately, vacant land is everywhere, and it affects all of us. In a city with increasing density and gentrification, we cannot afford to waste space. And when you think about 40,000 vacant lots, especially when compared to the the spaces and resources that all of us need yet lack in the city, it isn’t far-fetched to think that space is being wasted.

“We need to get back to our roots and make growing our own food a part of our culture,” says Joe Harrison, a specialty crops market news reporter with the US Department of Agriculture. Harrison witnessed the power of urban agriculture at a young age growing up in his Mount Airy neighborhood which at the time was rated the prettiest block in Philadelphia.

“There’s a lot of benefits to get out of urban farming. Both economic, spiritual, and health-wise,” says Harrison. “In case something happens, like COVID, people need to eat. So this has to be developed and it can be developed.”

Guerilla gardening represents this very type of development — turning a trash dump into an urban oasis. Taking rundown houses and vacant properties and sowing the seeds for a community project, teaching the community to grow, or building a school for children. Philly already has meaningful solutions to food insecurity and education. The city just has to support them. Or at least, not threaten them.

Resiliency through the ranks

Amidst public Philadelphia Housing Authority complexes on the 2200 block of Jefferson Street sits the North Philly Peace Park, the now infamous guerilla garden in the Sharswood neighborhood. Despite establishing themselves in the neighborhood back in 2011, continuous prodding and pressure from the city has seen them relocate and expand away from their original location.

Resiliency through the ranks of the garden and a vested belief in the surrounding community (including a community constitution formed by the Peace Park governing their bylaws/beliefs) has allowed them to persevere and fuel their expansion to a second location in West Philadelphia, also on vacant and formerly blighted land.

“Spaces like these are vital. And we see it as part of a larger revolutionary movement,” says Brother Tommy Joshua. Joshua is one of several Peace Park founders and stewards of the land.

On top of its mission of growing produce in the neighborhood, the Peace Park looks to expand as an educational space. They plan on opening a children’s learning center, the Sala Keturah Peace Pavilion. Designed by Peace Park architect Nyasha Felder and architecture firm Bohlin Chywinski Jackson, the pavilion will be a hub for STEM learning. The pavilion is slated to open this fall.

Early rendering of the Sala Keturah Peace Pavilion. Image via Bohlin Chywinski Jackson

“From food to architecture and design to economics, all of that stuff is what the Peace Park is about. Land-based democracy...Counteracting everything that is being put against us.”

A platform for radical and collaborative imagination

Situated along the intersection of 11th & Dauphin Streets in the heart of North Philadelphia lives a self-identified “platform for radical and collaborative imagination.”

Urban Creator’s Life Do Grow Farm is now known to neighbors and green spaces alike for its fresh produce and its community-based approach to urban agriculture. But this was not always the case. For their original efforts of clearing the dumping ground that originally sat where the farm is now, they were granted a lifetime lease of the land, a promise that has not been kept. Despite being a neighborhood staple for more than a decade, they have engaged in a protracted struggle with the city’s Land Bank in order to secure the 3 acres of land they already steward.

Mind Body and Soul Workshop attendees lining up for a free meal courtesy of Chef Mike Major.

Despite such struggle, they have continued to serve the surrounding Hartranft neighborhood in hosting free events including Mind Your Body and Soul weekly workshops, seeking to educate community members with food recipes, and teaching uses for different herbs as natural medicine. This season, they’ve also hosted mobile produce markets, alternating locations weekly to bring their Life Do Grow Farm produce directly to their consumers.

“I'm thankful and grateful for them being here all the time. That's why I'm always here because I just love this place, says Joy Crudup, one of the farm’s mobile market shoppers. “I first met them around 12th and Susquehanna at Penrose Playground, where they used to give out the food. And that's what prompted me to start coming around here.”

That same sentiment was echoed by Mark Wadley, a resident of the neighborhood. “Everything here is grown organically. And it's for an affordable price.”

Urban Creators community organizer Kuan Young gathers produce during one of the farm’s mobile markets.

Despite their positive feedback, these two stories are all too common for community-backed green spaces in the city. Philadelphia has more than 400 gardens spread throughout its boundaries, many of them doing the work the city couldn’t be bothered to take on.

Recently in June, the city struck a deal to purchase more than $1 million worth of tax-liened land, or land with a backlog of taxes owed, in order to save properties at risk of being auctioned off to the highest bidder via sheriff’s sale. The announcement protected parcels of land for gardens like Cesar Iglesias Gardens where the press conference with city officials was held. The agreement, however, notably lacks transparency. By addressing only a portion of the fight for land sovereignty ongoing in the city, where urban agriculture is pitted against gentrified development, its greater impact on community gardens remains to be seen. The deal struck is set to save 91 parcels of land, parcels being the term used for accounting purposes does not do enough to illustrate the bigger picture.

A parcel as defined by the city can act as one or a number of lots on a plot of land according to the city.

There are more than 400 gardens spread throughout the city, with each garden often comprised of several parcels of land. These gardens occupy around 900 parcels of land according to the Philadelphia Garden Data Collaborative. Now that the city has acquired the land, gardens may still have to apply for the land through the Land Bank or other quasi-public agency holding the key.

Speaking to WHYY after the deal was announced Iglesias Garden volunteer Ryan Gittler-Muñiz praised the move while also acknowledging the ongoing struggle, “We want to include everyone and we definitely want more.”

Overall it looks to be a continued fight for green spaces in the city. In response to a 30-year mortgage stipulation the Land Bank has placed on the properties it disperses, a coalition of more than 30 gardens and green spaces signed a letter calling for the removal of the mortgage back in March of this year. The Land Bank has yet to adhere to this joint request. The mortgage would affect every green space seeking ownership of the land through the Land Bank. The land bank’s next public meeting will be held on September 12 via Zoom.

When pressed on the issues of vacant lots in earlier Meet the Candidates reporting this year by GRID Magazine, Mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker spoke of her time as a councilmember, overseeing hearings examining the impacts of online sheriff sales. Parker stated she would support tasking a city department to compare data around green spaces in the city. A feat, though important to understand the effects of a less accessible practice, does nothing materially in ensuring that these foundational neighborhood structures are supported.

To learn more about the ongoing struggle for green spaces in the city, please tune in to our feature documentary Free the Land: Philadelphia’s Fight for Land Sovereignty available on YouTube.


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