A group that initially met at Occupy Philly on October 25th to discuss a Direct Action around composting on Dilworth Plaza, has now morphed into a much larger group focused on, to put it simply: Occupy Vacant Lots.
Earlier this week, 2 of us from Transition Philadelphia & Occupy Philly (Michaelann & Meenal) were inspired to respond to an open invitation from Robyn Mello of Philly Food Forests (PFF) for a Hands-On Vacant Lot Improvement Training on Mercy Street in South Philadelphia. This invitation reached us several ways: via the above mentioned group, Philly Food Forests, Philadelphia Urban Farm Network (fondly called PUFN), even Facebook.
Meenal and I were the first to arrive. Robyn and Joe were there soon after with residents of the block making their welcome clear to the gardeners. We started peeking around the gardens on either side of the street. Though this is the time of the year when most gardens have been put to bed, we saw plenty of life kicking in these gardens. Mustard and winter hardy greens, Jerusalem artichokes, herbs, parsley, clovers, and marigolds were still lively; not to mention, bees, slugs, worms, and snails! What we did not see were conventional linear garden plots.
The Philly Food Forest website says, in our vision, “there won’t be traditional plots, but rather an emphasis on cultivating the space to eventually grow to be self-sufficient and mimic a natural, wild environment.” And, indeed, there was not a straight tilled row to be seen. What we saw was the developing framework of a multiple level forest garden. Old and newly planted trees dotted the lots. Shrubs and herbs filled some of the brick-lined curvy beds. Tomato vines covered chain link fences. Below the level of the soil were the sunchoke tubers which Joe was, enthusiastically, harvesting! Other beds were bare, waiting to be planted with more perennials and favored annuals in the spring. They use Permaculture design strategies as well as organic gardening methods from Biodynamic, urban, and bio-intensive traditions. With a commitment to utilizing reclaimed materials, we recognized innovative use of materials for platforms, fencing, storage, compost bins, artwork, signage, and trellises.
More people came to the site as we poked around; some bringing tools and supplies, others bringing food; and, still, others bringing coffee from down the street. Primarily, everyone was coming to support this fantastic effort as well as to understand more how to replicate this type of action in other neighborhoods.
It is so clear. Abandoned lots that serve only as neglected and dangerous dumping grounds for trash could, instead, serve to grow healthy food and be a center for community. Actions of stewardship could empower, strengthen, and stabilize communities. Of course, a lot of questions arise; as well they should. How do you approach a neighborhood to initiate an action such as this? What happens if you receive a negative response? How do you get neighbors to become involved? How do you keep it maintained? What about legal issues?
What Robyn describes is not an abrupt takeover of, what appears to be, available land. It is best if you or someone you know lives in the neighborhood of the site. If you think you have found an appropriate site, find out the facts. Who owns it? Is anyone else working on a project in this community? Do the research. She recalls that they knocked on neighbors’ doors, one by one, and spoke with the residents. She learned about the people in the community and about the history of the community. In turn, she shared her thoughts and intentions. While building this relationship, and with support of like-hearted people, Robyn began to clear years and years of debris from the lots. Some of the lots have been abandoned for 20 years! There are 18 vacant lots of on this street. With a “go-ahead” from the residents, more than half of these have been cleared and planted by Philly Food Forests and the Nationalities Service Center. She advises that a consistent presence, even if only a couple of people show up to a work party, will make a big difference in the eyes of the neighborhood. She admits that when she comes to the garden to work; she can feel overwhelmed with the amount of work to do. However, after looking upon the day’s work and seeing the transformation in the landscape as a result of direct action; she ends up re-energized and re-focused. The results are valued and protected by the neighbors.
Most of the Mercy Emily Edible Park (MEEP) gardens are, fully, accessible to anyone. Citing specific examples, Robyn said that the neighbors have kept a watch on the gardens even when there are no gardeners present, and they have had no problems with vandalism. We learned that, as the gardens were being established, neighbors from adjacent streets expressed interest in having gardens on their block. She told us a story in which one of the residents, initially objected to the changes but, now; wants to start his own gardening project on the corner by his house!
The food that grows in the gardens is shared without request of financial or work contribution. The neighbors haven’t fully embraced working in the gardens at this point. Robyn acknowledges that this will take time and looks forward to seeing this dynamic emerge. Being a living example for the community is her primary educational modality.
A recent and very relevant post has been moving through several of the related list serves. Written by Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer who has been assisting community activists through the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI) at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. In words, Amy reflects Robyn’s actions almost point by point. This important document will be a guide for anyone who wishes to clean out and grow gardens in vacant lots. For the highly recommended document, please, go here.
An excerpt from a Philly Food Forests blog entry sticks with me. It awakens us to the process, purpose, and tenacity that is needed for occupying vacant lots for growing gardens in our communities.
“Philly Food Forests is about taking back the land for ourselves. It’s not all about channeling the beauty of jeweled pepper bushes. It’s not all about the luscious ripening of infinite tomatoes or the long trailing vines of squash plants. We must become weeds in our own space if we want to own it fully. We grow every day, broadening and deepening our reach. We devise strategies of integration around existing structures. We can’t take back the land if we don’t put in the time. We can’t put in the time if we don’t have a stake in the soil. Like little barbs, we must need the garden as much as we need to brush our teeth and watch our TV. Their strength of purpose is inspiring. If we don’t learn this truth from the weeds, then the weeds will always win.
The volunteers picked up debris and filled contractor bags. The street side was swept. The potted thornless blackberries were tended. After a while, several of us found our way to working together to clear cement and trash and asphalt from the back fence of one of the gardens. Shovels, rakes, picks, and hands were our tools. Power tools are not necessary for tending this garden. A cherry tree was planted. We consulted on composting and talked about the rainwater catchment system. There was plenty of networking. Filmmakers, journalists, community activists, gardeners, builders, and educators shared information about contacts, locations, resources, and projects.
There is so much growing here. Food. Beauty. Community resilience. Transition. Self reliance. Wisdom. Health. I hope we can have the intelligence, the patience, the energy, the heart, and the courage to take back the land with love.
Here are some of the groups that are interested in this type of effort: