A traumatic raid ends with a brighter future for the North Philly Peace Park

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The garden at the North Philly Peace Park. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The garden at the North Philly Peace Park. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

It doesn’t always turn out this way. 

After the Philadelphia Housing Authority admitted that a Monday morning raid of two properties used by the North Philly Peace Park was a mistake, organizers now have the legal right to restore the buildings after nearly a year of trying to acquire them.

“That was a very, very uplifting response,” said Bird, a Peace Park volunteer and behavioral health worker who asked to withhold her name due to an agreement with her employer. “It definitely made everyone that came down, and everyone who was supporting in spirit, very happy.” 

Bird said Sharswood neighbors and members of the community park started to clean, rehabilitate and occupy the two abandoned buildings, adjacent to the park as a response to drug trafficking and prostitution in the space. 

The building clean up marked an expansion of the work North Philly Peace Park has been doing in the area since 2012. That was when founder Tommy Joshua Caison and his neighbors turned a couple of vacant lots into a community garden, but then lost it to PHA’s redevelopment plan for the area. In 2016, PHA and the garden reached an agreement and moved to the current location along Jefferson street. 

Peace Park members reached out to PHA, who owns both buildings, about a year ago, asking the agency if organizers could purchase and repurpose the abandoned houses.

“We wanted to discourage that [drug use and prostitution] from the neighborhood, as well as the park,” Bird said. “When you’re having functions with small children and families in a park, or you’re attempting to gather people who are struggling around resources and things of that nature, those types of activities can be highly triggering.” 

With no immediate response from PHA, Peace Park members decided to take action and clean the properties anyway, while continuing to reach out to the agency. Neighbors and park members chimed in and started cleaning and repairing the homes for a more productive use.

But although they had permission to use the land, PHA had not officially given permission to Peace Park to use those units.

The raid

The raid happened Monday morning when PHA officials and police officers came into both properties adjacent to the park and began a surprise inspection, Caison said. No one was in any of the properties, since Peace Park has been using them mostly as storage as they continue to fix them. But neighbors who saw the officers forcibly coming in sent the alert. 

“I got multiple phone calls and texts messages from neighbors who live in the immediate vicinity of the North Philly Peace Park and they were telling me that the houses that we cleaned out were being raided by the police,” said Caison, who directs the park. 

A number of park members and neighbors rushed to the Peace Park. Caison said he got into the property and asked the officers what was going on. He saw broken glass, boarded windows, busted locks, and said the whole property had been rummaged through. He explained Peace Park had been working on the properties to PHA’s knowledge for the last few months and immediately sent an email to PHA high officials. 

“We let them know in no uncertain terms that this display of force —  coming out with multiple police cars and trucks, and making a bigger do, and the early morning police raid, which in our intents and purposes look like some sort of criminal action at a place that knows none of that,” Caison said. 

During the pandemic, Peace Park has been distributing food and staple goods to seniors and residents from PHA’s Sharswood Tower, in addition to having a free produce day each month, the next one being this Sunday. The community park has been working with the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and partners for the construction of an afrofuturist pavilion for the last few years. 

“It was shocking to everyone because we had already started communicating with them about our intentions for those homes, which literally revolves around the community and the upkeep and the building up of the North Philadelphia area,” said Bird. 

Caison said shortly after PHA officers and police left, they came back to apologize. The housing agency headquarters are located just a few blocks away in the neighborhood. 

PHA spokesperson Nichole L. Tillman said the incident shouldn’t have happened. 

“PHA had not officially given permission to the Peace Park to use those units,” she said in an email. “Nonetheless, it was a mistake for us to try to secure those units since we were having discussions with the Peace Park to use the space.”

Tillman said PHA officials were doing inspections in several vacant units that morning, and that PHA police usually come along when staff is accessing abandoned buildings for protection. 

The future

Within 48 hours of Monday’s traumatic event, a license agreement between PHA and Peace Park was in the works.

Although the agreement is still in negotiations, it gives the park the right to use and maintain the properties for garden tool storage and administrative office for a year, with the possibility of renewing it for two additional one-year periods.

“We look forward to working with them in the future,” Tillman said. “We also plan to work with them to  develop an appropriate vision for the complementary vision for the entirety of the 2200 block.”

Caison said the agreement was a short-term measure, but that Peace Park will fight to get full control over the properties to rehabilitate the homes into energy efficient units with the community, Drexel University students and the Nyasha Felder team, the lead designer for the park’s expansion.

North Philly Peace Park’s ultimate plan is to repurpose one building into administrative offices and the other one into a community service building.

“We think that this work will now accelerate and we believe that we will be getting started in the spring of 2021. So we’re really excited about the prospects,” Caison said.

On Tuesday, Pili Jaja Kojo Malik X, a founding member of Peace Park, started an online fundraiser to be able to rehabilitate the properties, get building materials and pay for construction services. As of Thursday evening, 68 people had donated $2,631 out of a $15,000 goal.

Caison said park members are relieved now that Monday’s traumatic events are in the past, although they still question the motives of the raid, given the track record Peace Park has on uplifting the community.

But he said the history of Peace Park has taught him that sometimes obstacles are necessary to grow stronger.

“All is well at the park,” he said. “It was a bit of a roller coaster ride this week but now all is back to normal so we are really happy about that. We can get back to our love, which is working on land, which is working with people, which is bringing neighbors together.”

“So we welcome the opposition, and we are confident that we will overcome,” Caison added.

This Saturday, park and community members will clean up and work on the two buildings to bring them back to what they once were. On Sunday, the park will have its free food market, and on August 21, they’ll host an outdoor marketplace with over 30 local Black businesses.

The park is also growing into another location in West Philadelphia, at 930, N. 51st street. People started working on the West Philly Peace Park a little over a month ago.

“They have a lot of volunteers that come out in those areas that are really working diligently, a lot of families, as well as children,” said Bird. “They have several beds going, and so they’re not too far behind us.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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