At Philly’s community gardens, growing frustration over their future

Willow Zef volunteers at the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, established by Philly Socialists in 2012 near Lawrence and Norris streets. (Angela Gervasi for WHYY)

Willow Zef volunteers at the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, established by Philly Socialists in 2012 near Lawrence and Norris streets. (Angela Gervasi for WHYY)

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the roar of heavy equipment echoed through Norris Square.

The sound is nothing new in this pocket of Kensington, where skeletons of new homes rise above older brick ones, but this was different.

The construction equipment plowing through a vacant lot was driven by Anthony Patrick, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, and he was making space not for a building, but for a garden. The newly cleared space would add to the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden.

As Patrick cleared the plot of land, the damp smell of grass hung in the air, along with a question: Was this land theirs to keep?

“This is the last piece of land we’re probably going to have, you know, that’s ours,” Patrick said. “If everything goes well, we’ll be able to keep it. Hopefully.”

Staying a green space

The César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, established on an abandoned property, has functioned since 2012 as a collaboration between residents and the Philly Socialists organization. In August, a portion of the garden was purchased by JBA LLC, a developer, throwing its future into question.

 

To acquire vacant or publicly owned property, farmers can go through the Philadelphia Land Bank, an initiative whose slow process has caused frustration among prospective landowners.

“It’s not designed to do what it’s supposed to do,” said volunteer Amy Gottsegen. “There are not pathways, like, for independent gardeners and communities to get land through it.”

Organizers have tried to discuss the garden with Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, inviting her to events and cleanup days at the space.

“I don’t think anybody’s been able to talk to her face-to-face,” Patrick said. Quiñones-Sánchez did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Since learning about the purchase, the garden’s organizers have been in contact with JBA LLC.

“We want this land to stay a green space and not have a house on it,” said Gottsegen.

‘The Little farm’

César Andreu Iglesias isn’t the only garden struggling to survive. Real estate development is a growing threat to Philadelphia’s community gardens. Of the city’s estimated 470 urban farms, about half are established on abandoned land.

Last spring, a community garden known as La Finquita — which translates to “little farm” — closed its doors. It had given Kensington thousands of pounds of fresh produce. It bloomed for almost 30 years.

Real estate development and a legal settlement changed that. Now, the stretch of land on Fifth and Master belongs to Mayrone LLC, a developer.

A padlock and chain curl around what was once the entrance to La Finquita. (Angela Gervasi for WHYY)

But around the corner, a new, smaller garden has sprouted: Garden Esquina.

Jessica Noon, a former volunteer for La Finquita, organized build days and potlucks in preparation for Garden Esquina. Additionally, Noon helped establish Olde and South Kensington Green Space — a nonprofit aimed at preventing garden closures in the area. The organization was formed to acquire garden properties and hold them as a land trust, using settlement funds from La Finquita.

“We’re trying to help gardens and green spaces that are existing to be preserved,” Noon said.

Fred Lorenzen, another volunteer from La Finquita, hopes the new organization will create a sense of security for gardeners.

“There’s gardeners out there that have been gardening the same site for decades,” Lorenzen pointed out. “And like La Finquita, a developer could show up one day and buy the rights to the land out from under them, and just tell them to go pound sand.”

Garden Esquina is the first space that will be overseen by Olde and South Kensington Green Space. Over the past 10 months, the little plot has progressed from a dumping space to a sanctuary for tomato plants and lettuce seedlings, at the hands of volunteers.

Sam Prasak helps out during a community garden building day on Orkney Street. (Angela Gervasi for WHYY)

Angelica Rosado was one of them. When she first found out La Finquita would be closing, the memories came flooding back. They tasted of corn, tomatoes, freshly grown carrots she’d planted herself at the farm.

“I had squash for the first time thanks to the farm stand,” Rosada remembered, referring to the colorful bundles of vegetables, fruits and herbs sold at La Finquita throughout the year. “Cooked it up for dinner one night, and it was really good.”

Rosada no longer lives in Kensington, where she grew up. But after hearing about the new garden, she made the 30-minute trip back to help on a Saturday morning.

“I had time today so I was like, ‘I’ll go down there, you know, volunteer my time, help out, bring the garden back,’” Rosada said.

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