A group of gardeners in North Philadelphia have gotten the city’s public housing authority to negotiate with them.
Tommy Joshua was working in the garden when a guy from his neighborhood rode by on a bike and gave him some bad news.
“Some dude, some like arbitrary man,” Joshua said, “told me straight up, ‘Yo dog, they got a plan to like, take this whole jawn over. You’re doing all this in vain.'”
It was 2014, and over the last couple years, Joshua and his friends had turned some vacant land in Sharswood, one of the highest-crime, poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, into a community garden. The land was about as big as a few basketball courts, and the group called it the North Philly Peace Park.
Now, this guy was telling Joshua that the land was about to get swept up in a half-billion dollar redevelopment plan by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
Joshua went to a community meeting at a local church to see if that was true. At the front of the room, there was a glossy cardboard map showing the first phase of development.
“I’m looking at it, and I’m saying, ‘hold up, that’s the Peace Park.’ But it was like something else over the Peace Park.”
He went home and told the other gardeners, and they showed up to another community meeting. This time, with vegetables.
“I remember them telling them, flatly, ‘We don’t accept that,'” Joshua said. “‘Like, I see that y’all go plans to build right there, but that’s unacceptable. The Peace Park is there, so y’all not gonna be able to build there.'”
So launched a standoff, with Joshua and the Peace Park on one side and the housing authority on the other. A standoff that raises a question: who owns the land in a community?
Sharswood has been a mostly African American neighborhood for a while. In the 1960s, tensions between police and the community led to riots, and a lot of people who could afford to leave did.
After that, Philadelphia’s housing authority built several high-rise public housing towers in the neighborhood, and it fell into decline.
The Norman Blumberg Apartments in Sharswood were demolished in April 2016. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Kelvin Jeremiah, who became the president and CEO of the agency in 2013, says he visited the towers late one night to see what life there was like. “I left frankly feeling scared for my life,” he said.
Jeremiah says he saw people trying to sell drugs and that a guy lifted his shirt to show him a gun and told him to leave.
He was only there for four or five minutes, he says. And he couldn’t help thinking about the 500 families that actually lived in the towers. “What about those folks who call it home?” he says.
PHA President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Around that time, the agency came up with a plan to turn the neighborhood around. That plan would start with knocking down the high-rise towers and building more than 1,200 new public housing units, including apartments right on top of the garden.
The plan went beyond housing, though. The agency would be partnering with other organizations to revitalize the entire neighborhood: bringing in a supermarket and other businesses, creating green spaces, reopening a local school, and even moving the housing authority’s headquarters to Ridge Avenue, Sharswood’s commercial corridor.
Growing a garden
Before that plan existed, Tommy Joshua was trying to fix this neighborhood from the ground up. He’s 36, and he grew up in Sharswood. So a few years ago, when he looked at the huge piece of land across from the towers, he knew it’d been vacant for decades.
It looked and smelled like a dump, piled high with old furniture and garbage, Joshua says.
“It was almost like having a big trash heap in front of your house,” he said.
Joshua and some friends decided they’d had enough. They spent weeks clearing the trash and then grew a garden in the shape of a peace sign, with plants like tomatoes, peppers, onions, and kale. They gave the food away to their neighbors. The closest supermarket was a mile away.
Little by little, kids from the neighborhood saw the gardeners out there, wearing boots and paint-splattered pants, pushing around wheelbarrows, and planting, and they started pitching in.
“I think kids naturally like to play,” Joshua said. “And the type of creative work that we do with ecology, I think to them it would look like play.”
Joshua and some of the other gardeners were teachers, so they turned the park into an outdoor classroom.
They built a schoolhouse from old tires and concrete and used their own money to hire more teachers. They held classes in art, ecology, music, and architecture for more than 160 kids.
And then in 2014, Joshua found out the housing authority owned part of this land. And it was going to seize the rest and build affordable apartments on top of the garden.
The heart of the disagreement
If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it happens a lot. A vacant lot in a city becomes a dumping ground. Somebody decides to fix it up and grow a garden or open a little shop. Years pass, and then the owner comes back.
Often, the people who’ve been tending the land believe they should have some rights to it.
“We definitely felt as though we owned the land, even though we didn’t have the paperwork,” says Pili X, one of the garden’s founders. “Because we had kinda like liberated it from being a trash dump.”
Legally, that wasn’t the case. These gardeners, despite how they felt, were trespassing on the housing authority’s property. And allowing them to stay would have basically been condoning that, says Kelvin Jeremiah. “It’s property that we owned, right?” he said. “It would set I think the wrong precedent.”
More importantly, the agency had already invested millions of dollars in coming up with a plan to transform the neighborhood. After all that, it wasn’t about to change course, Jeremiah says. “To change [the plan] because there were folks who believe they can trespass on property that they don’t own just seems a little bit foolhardy to me,” he said.
But the gardeners decided to stay and fight the plan anyway. They were savvy about social media, so that’s where they went first.
They planned an event called the Philadelphia Urban County Fair. The concept was simple, Joshua says: “Can we bring the country to the hood?” There would be music, a bouncy castle, face painting, beekeeping workshops, and even some chickens.
In the end, more than 500 people showed up. And that healthy turnout was the gardeners’ way of saying to the housing authority: this is our neighborhood, and we’re already revitalizing it.
“Being outsiders how you gonna come into the community, see the people trying to do something and better themselves, and why would you want to shut that down?” Joshua said.
At first, the strategy seemed to work. After the Urban County Fair, the authority said it wanted to work together and that it would find another spot for the garden. But it didn’t give any details, and months passed.
Then things got heated. In the spring of 2015, the housing authority sent workers to fence off the land.
When Joshua found out, he was fuming. “You got local people trying to do something,” he said. “And you gonna come and fence off their garden, like they some criminals? That was so disrespectful.”
He showed up at the garden and started to lose it.
“I kinda like got a little emotional, so I kind of started, like, pulling the fences down while they was there,” he said. “And then people started joining me. They was like, ‘yo, we calling the cops.’ And I was like, ‘call the cops.'”
Instead, the workers finished the job and left. In the aftermath, some of the gardeners wanted to take down the fence entirely. But Joshua pulled back. “I wasn’t gonna allow these beautiful people to be criminalized,” he said.
The group got back in action. They held a press conference and made demands, like a 10-year lease on another piece of land.
One week after we had a full page write up in one of Philadelphia’s top news papers “Philadelphia Inquirer” Philadelphia Housing Authority came out and fenced off our garden. We’re holding a press conference tomorrow at 4pm 2400 Bolton St 24/25 OXFORD #UrbanFarming #UrbanGardening #Gardening #Farming #UrbanFarms #UrbanGardens #Earthships #Sustainability #SustainableLiving #UnLitterUs
After that, the housing authority reached out and said it had a spot for the garden around the corner, at 22nd Street and Jefferson Street. The agency sent over an agreement for the gardeners to sign.
Joshua thinks it was because of the bad press. The housing authority says it had been planning to do this all along and that the press conference had nothing to do with their decision.
Either way, this was a big deal, says Kirtrina Baxter, a community organizer who works with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. “We felt that the relationship and the negotiation between the Peace Park and PHA was a significant win for gardeners in the city, because in the past, that conversation hasn’t been happening,” Baxter said.
In spring 2016, the housing authority started building apartments on the land where the Peace Park used to stand.
This spring, the Peace Park’s schoolhouse still stood behind the agency’s new apartments and in the shadow of the public housing towers. (Marielle Segarra/WHYY)
In April, Kelvin Jeremiah, the head of the housing authority, stood in front of a group of residents and prepared to blow up the towers.
“Good morning, everybody,” he said. “Doesn’t this feel great?”
He said life as they knew it was going to change as the agency removed the stigma created by the high-rise towers.
The Norman Blumberg apartments collapse on the morning of the implosion. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)
Soon after that, the group counted down, and he ushered in that change.
Weeks later, across the street from the rubble, the gardeners started over, too.
“Thank y’all for coming to the Peace Park and helping us design today!” Joshua said to a group of children from an after-school program he runs.
Eight-year-old Jada Davis imagined what the park could be. “Right in the back corner, I think there’s gonna be like a big wall,” Davis said. “Like a big room with like a peace painting.”
The way Joshua sees it, the housing authority may own this land, but this is his community. And it belongs to the people.
Tommy Joshua talks with volunteer Donna Bradley about the garden at the North Philly Peace Park. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)
The gardeners are about to sign a lease with the housing authority that’ll let them stay here for free for a year at a time. They wanted a permanent spot, and they’ll keep pushing for it. For now, though, Joshua says he’s willing to compromise.
“I’m aware of what happens when you have an all for nothing mentality,” he said. “Sometimes you end up with nothing. Sometimes you end up a hero. You end up a martyr. I’d rather end up gardening.”
With reporting from Katie Colaneri, Jared Brey, and Aaron Moselle.
PlanPhilly has ongoing coverage of the Sharswood redevelopment plan.
Music credits:Salute — J. Rawls
Memories — Lewis Del Mar
Deep Space (Instr.) — Lord Jamar, RZA
On Trees And Birds And Fire — I Am Oak
Milkshake — Mister Modo & Ugly Mac Beer
In The Trenches – Instrumental — Juice & Molemen
Inhale Remix — RJD2
Ghostwriter — RJD2
Doin it Right (Instrumental Version) — RJD2