Land Grabbing and Community Gardens in Philly

ACORN Housing

            Philadelphia     Community gardens have been a growing part of the urban agriculture scene around the country, so I jumped at an invitation from people in our first Philadelphia workshop to visit one of the most well-known, the Cesar Andreu Iglesias Garden in North Philly.  Driving there, I felt like it was one of the neighborhoods I had been on the doors in the early days of ACORN’s organizing in the area.  I had passed our old building on North Broad before Google Maps deposited me at the garden.

It’s hard to describe the location and where it sits in the neighborhood now.  Standard phrases, like “it’s an oasis” in the middle of the city won’t work, because it both is and it isn’t.  The gardens themselves are part raised beds, flowers, and vegetables laid out on some lots and a small rise slopping down from a recently bricked more formal entrance way, but the real impression that strikes a visitor is wilder and woolier, than rowed and planted fields.  Part of the green space, is ragged and rough, as if in the process of still being reclaimed from abandonment and natural selection, and it turns out that part of the property is still controlled by multiple public and private landholders for development or god knows what, all of which is a major story in and of itself.  Sitting under the kitchen structure and looking 360 degrees around the garden, the contradictions in the community are on full display.  Old multi-story houses in various states of repair are broken up by vacant lots and new brick and wood, apartment and condo structures of varying sizes trying to claim the area for full scale development and gentrification, dislocating everyone now living here.

There were other plans for my visit than showing me around, as it turned out.  A half-dozen of the core volunteers, who help manage and maintain the garden, had a lot of organizational and campaign questions they wanted to discuss, so they immediately launched into their agenda and converted me from a friendly visitor to a fascinated and engaged free consultant.  I enjoyed every minute of my visit and loved hearing that part of their questions and work was influenced by an ACORN study group they had created several years ago.  They faced some crossroads about staffing and resources to solidify the Iglesias Garden, but also were dealing with similar gardens and community members in other neighborhoods that had utilized vacant lots that were now imperiled.  In an early fight they had won control over a quarter acre of the garden from the city and had promises of some grant money to purchase and secure title.  Because of developmental pressure, these scruffy lots were now being valued at over $100,000, which seemed unbelievable, but true.

The citywide issues are too complex to detail quickly, but it seemed that what had been a win in Philly with the creation of the city Land Bank controlling all the tax delinquent housing, had now become the target as they moved to auction off property.  The Garden volunteers had tried to step into that breach and could effectively organize people to save their lots temporarily, even though they were not covered in the early “victory” around community gardens, which was also delayed in final implementation.  They couldn’t do both, and that was a major question in our conversations, without more resources and finally having full-time organizers, which I advocated.  Other properties were controlled by US Bank, which was a difficult and allusive target.  I found later another issue lay in the agreement proposed by the Land Bank to turn over the rights to the community gardens lots they wanted to the garden folks to sign a 30-year mortgage document that would amortize to zero, if the garden survived the term, which many of these nonprofits saw as onerous, both on their balance sheets and on their future prospects.

Meanwhile, land grabbing developers and financially broke public agencies are finding common cause in resisting the pressure from the garden coalitions and the lot of holders in what is a great and defining campaign in the city and its future.  The people of Iglesias Garden are being forced to make quick decisions about how to respond to this crisis in order to both create an oasis in North Philly and be a vanguard force against land grabbing throughout Philly.  What a great challenge and opportunity!