Remembering Greensgrow’s Mary Seton Corboy: Grower of food, flowers, neighborhoods

In the pantheon of urban agriculture, few stand taller here than Mary Seton Corboy, founder and Chief Idea Officer of Philadelphia’s Greensgrow, a 19-year old trailblazing urban farm on East Cumberland Street, devoted to “growing food, flowers, and neighborhoods.”

Full disclosure: There are few places in Philly as dear to me as Greensgrow. It is an oasis. It is productive but not precious. It is a shining example of ground-up change: It stands as a counterpoint to so much of this city’s vacant land, waiting for a new day and better way, it is a living lesson in community-building through urban agriculture, and it’s beautiful. But this is about Mary.

Mary Seton Corboy passed away on Sunday, and she leaves behind an incredible legacy. (You can read her obituary here.)

As a Greensgrow CSA member, shopper, and longtime admirer, I first encountered Mary through her writing. Mary was an expert and self-described ranter, delivering wonderfully rambling, smart, acerbic, funny email newsletters and, later, blog posts. You can read some of these archived on Greensgrow’s website. As I thought about how to remember Mary in these pages it seemed fitting to let her do the talking.

Much like Greensgrow’s work, Mary’s writing was layered, where personal stories mixed with the political, agriculture with neighborhood culture. It’s hard to pick just one to share her unique voice. I’ll think of this one every winter, prompting us to tune in to the small things that give joy, the reminders of life blooming even on dreary days. Or there’s this reflection two nights after the Buck Hosiery Fire. Or this sharp open letter to City Council when it considered changing the new zoning code to make urban gardens and farms harder to establish in certain areas. Others are about facing the future  where Greensgrow is going.

Greensgrow’s home base has long been in Kensington, but recent years had found the organization branching out to mobile markets and a new outpost in West Philly. Starting in 2014, Greensgrow West took root on the lot where Elena’s Soul Lounge stood before being destroyed by fire. After securing a new spot on Baltimore Avenue, and officially moving this week, the new Greensgrow West will soft open on Friday. Its grand opening will be celebrated on September 8 during the Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll. And so Greensgrow marches on.

Here are two of Mary’s pieces on the Greensgrow West move, reprinted with permission from Greensgrow.

The Wheel Keeps Turning | February 16, 2016

This spring 2016, we’re working towards a soft opening of our new site in West Philadelphia. What? You thought we already did that? Well, yes, kind of. Some back story for all. In 2013, we had been on the verge of leasing a piece of land further down the block when we realized at a community meeting that there were strong opinions about the potential of that community gateway. As newcomers, we stepped back and put our plans on hold. Instead, a local businessman stepped in who offered up a small piece of land right on Baltimore Avenue where a once popular nightclub had burned down. The owner hated the idea of his lot sitting empty in the middle of this burgeoning corridor.

With the opportunity to start a mini Greensgrow and gauge the community interest in our work, we took up his offer. It was an excellent exercise and one that used to be a standard bearer-try something out before you invest whole hog. In three quick weeks, we opened our new space. Not a “pop up”, (I hate that overused catch all for squatting), but a kind of what one would expect in the city for a nursery space-a couple of outbuildings patched together and a whole lot of plants. We managed to fit food (CSA and SNAP Box Program) in the small footprint, and it went pretty damn well. Kudos to the Greensgrow West team.

In the meantime, Ryan Kuck, farmer-turned- Greensgrow-visionary, spent months running from meeting to meeting with community leaders, business leaders, council people and city staff to try to get an agreement to let us use a lot, commonly referred to in the neighborhood as the Bamboo Lot, that had been empty and overgrown for years.

Now, two long years later (ask the staff that has survived with no bathroom) we finally appear to have our ducks in a row to open a larger space a few blocks north at 5123 Baltimore Avenue. Great! So what the hell are we doing, and what happens to the little spot at Baltimore and 49th street? Good questions, all. Our small retail outlet will stay open for the next year while we work towards building out and transitioning into a larger space. The new site will have a high tunnel for growing, an outdoor classroom, office and retail space in converted shipping containers, and maybe even a few chickens.

As much as I’d like to replicate Kensington’s Greensgrow, pig and all, we wanted to try something different, something borne of all the lessons we have learned since opening the first urban farm in Philly almost 20 years ago. Boy, what a landfill of things we’ve learned. We’ve met and discussed and talked it over (as someone who hates meetings and groups and committees, this has been painful). Like many of us, I prefer my own ideas to those of others. And, as the boss all these years, I expect my ideas to rise to the top. But the truth is, Greensgrow has grown. The community and the staff have their own vision, and times change. Does this mean a new direction for Greensgrow?

There were components of building a new operation that especially piqued my interest, of course. We’ve focused more on the physical plant (no pun intended) and there was a part of me that want to show that Greensgrow was no one trick pony. A student from Drexel worked all semester on a new composting bathroom design, we argued over use of trailers versus shipping containers, how much space to give to an outdoor classroom, whether to raise bees and where to place hives. The fence has been a major sticking point-rebuild? Replace? Redesign? Who? When? What does it say? (I hope it says “Keep out when closed”. Ultimately I am a pragmatist more than a dreamer). So we are still figuring it out, but the 4912 site will be open again this year as we transition. They will finally have some storage capacity for soil and pots and refrigeration to better protect the CSA product just up the block, instead of across town. Excellent.

A new venture takes a lot of time, energy and resources. I’m not trying to give short shrift to the other cool things that will be happening at Greensgrow, or to the staff that somehow keep that wheel turning in the face of adversity (scallions from Amazon Prime 1$ a bunch). We’ll be in there fighting, trust me. There are always gains to be made, and improvements to be made. I am recently under the spell of The Lean Farm and am committed to paring down to the essentials. We are such-what do you call those people on TV? No, not Kardashian’s (and I pride myself in not knowing which is which). That other popular show, Hoarders. Honestly. We have pieces of PVC back to when we built our first system at Greensgrow. Hopefully some artist is in search of lots of PVC parts (perhaps a still life of a 1/4 to 1/5 inch coupler?).

Even writing this brings to me a certain exuberance that the winter saps from me, so now I need to go look at fencing on Craigslist and see if someone wants to trade a truckload of PVC for some sturdy attractive fencing.

Greensgrow | Shrimpcracker, Flickr

Inside the Mind of Mary: On a Site Visit in West Philadelphia | March 18, 2015

Something is nagging me. What is it? It is sitting right there. I can feel it. Four houses I assume stood here. Big deep brick homes, West Philly homes, broader and deeper than the houses in Kensington I am used to. I wonder where they went. There are so many dilapidated houses around here. Why did these have to go? I can see a few old growth trees but mostly it is crap, spindly, the ever present ailanthus. Ghetto Palm they call it. Omnipresent in urban communities, a tree that can easily break concrete, withstand fires, repel herbicides. Once you have one, you have a hundred. The roots, I think aloud, must be everywhere. They nod in solemn agreement. We all know. I dig up a soda bottle with the toe of my boot as Tony talks permaculture. He has gone to grad school in the intervening years. He has new buzz words. He laughs at himself but I know he believes. That’s why he’s here, waiting for the sun to break out and make this into a nice day. I lean against a pitchfork Ryan found, not because I like to lean but because my leg hurts. Who am I kidding? Everything hurts. It’s been twenty years since I got the mojo, turned something around. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Ryan is talking grading, The Water Department, their love of stormwater management. They never give you any money though. We need them onboard. We can’t find any signs of water lines. Crap. They must be here. Hell, these houses weren’t taken down that long ago but the cracked broken sidewalk gives us nothing. It hits me finally. Needles. There are no needles. How sad that is that? I assume they’ll be there. But I have seen so many. Always wear boots with good soles; those damn needles were everywhere. But not here. Weird.

That finalized in my head I can go on to something else. Tony has grown. We all have. He knows now that we can’t win them all. He shrugs but I know it hurts his heart a little bit, learning the truth at fifty. I let my mind go where it wants, give it some breathing room. Not always a good idea but it happens.  “My tree guy.” Who is your tree guy? Robb? Yeas he’s my tree guy too. He’s coming over Saturday to try to wrangle that damn magnolia that’s been pelting my roof with pods all winter long. My yard looks like someone dirt bombed it. That’s my luck, having plenty of the one thing those nasty ass squirrels won’t eat. God, I hate squirrels-  I notice there aren’t any here.

Why are we talking about tree guy? I thought we did things ourselves. There was a time… yes, but it may not be that time now.  Now I hurt my back just picking up those g.d. magnolia pods in my backyard. I doubt I could even lift the old Stihl. But when would we do it and it has to be done right away. I start a list. It grows fast and long. The trees, all that bamboo. Maybe burn it. That’s a hell of a way to meet the neighbors. “Hi we’re going to just set fire to this brush that happens to be next to your house and no we don’t even have a hose. Oh by the way, do you happen to recall where the water lines were?” Yeah, that’ll go over like pork at a Seder.

I keep coming back to water. Soon. A 1 inch line. Sewer or not? Let’s face it. No sewer probably means not having a handicapped bathroom.  I don’t know I love that we have a composting toilet. Maybe we could upgrade that. There’s ways. We opened two sites with no bathrooms. I can’t believe the girls put up with that, troopers. God, we were naïve. It just dawned on me. We started at Greensgrow 18 years ago today. How weird is that? That’s weird. I don’t go for that stuff but let’s face it, that’s weird. Planets are aligned. Ooooh.

So water. Electric. Go with a 200 service Just in case harder to talk PECO into adding later. Hell, what’s that gonna cost? What did I pay? Billy Sommervile. Wonder what happened to him. I haven’t seen his trucks in the neighborhood for years. I’ll have to find a local guy. Or gal. Never see a chick electrician. Water, electric, trees, grading and office, a john, insurance.  I wonder how Tim Barnes is. I miss him. WE really got lucky. I better call. That fence has to go. Make a statement. That’s not me.  Maybe Dave will have ideas. Everything has to be green these days. Sustainable. As if. Maybe I can find some landscaping students. These student gigs though; they don’t understand time. What is it about designers; god they overthink shit. Nothing would ever get done if we waited for designers and engineers. That’s a sycamore. Too bad but it’s in the wrong place. Gotta go bro. Sorry Down you go. I must be out of my mind.

I don’t have a nickel how are we gonna pay for this? Eh a year. A lot can happen in a year. Look at Greensgrow West, they made a go of it. You don’t have to build it yourself Mary, good thing- I hate to drive. This is too far away for me. Permits. Oh lord. This is going to be rough. I don’t know. I mean I’m gonna have to dot the t’s, not have the fun. It was fun, it is fun. It’s better than the alternative whatever that is. Me in an office. I am in an office. I have to clear my desk. Mom’s taxes. I hope that was the right form. Why am I doing this? It really could be fun, out of my what do they call everything? Silo. Ironic. Silos. We need a lawyer. I’m not taking a handshake from the City.  New admin next year. Yeah right. Same toilet, different flusher. What exactly is Thai food. What is Tony talking about now? Ryan must think I have a money tree. Alright. Fix the fence, tell the neighbors, get this shithole cleaned up. Looks like full sun. Too bad that damn sycamore is in the wrong place. What exactly are  we trying to do here anyway? Well I’m in it now. Oh right. Go to the bank and sign those papers. What else? Ah I’ll think about it in the car. I wonder if there’s a shorter route here. I’ll have to ask around.

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