Ripe for a Party
By Denise Cowie
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Friday, September 7, 2001
The Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden will celebrate 25 lush years. It's taken some hard work, and lots of lobbying.
Back in 1976, when Philadelphia's neighborhoods were sprucing themselves up for the Bicentennial, the big empty space on Christian Street near Third was nothing more than a vacant lot, full of weeds, that hadn't been used in years.
Hardly an urban oasis.
But the gardeners of the Queen Village Neighbors Association looked at that barren cityscape and saw the potential for a wonderful community garden - a common backyard for the land-poor rowhouse and apartment dwellers of Queen Village and Southwark.
Old-timers and newcomers to the gentrifying neighborhood worked side by side to make their vision a reality, clearing the site and digging the unyielding ground.
"When we started, one of our major tools was a pick, for turning the soil over," recalls Libby Goldstein, a ceramist from Queen Village who was a driving force behind the garden's creation.
Later this month, the Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden will mark a quarter-century of planting on the site with a silver-jubilee celebration for community gardeners past and present, as well as neighbors, friends and well-wishers.
Holding on to the land wasn't always easy.
Without "a handful of intrepid gardeners with a passion for their sacred space," the greenery could easily have been lost to development, says Audrey Lisowski, who joined two years ago.
Over the years, the politically savvy band enlisted the help of such allies as former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, then-U.S. Rep. Thomas Foglietta, and Sen. Arlen Specter in their efforts to stop the federal government from selling off the site as "excess property." Along the way, the garden's advocates were instrumental in the birth of the Neighborhood Gardens Association, a nonprofit land trust that helps protect Philadelphia's community gardens.
"Gardening in the city is a political act," Goldstein, a veteran of all the battles, says somewhat dryly. "There's no question about that."
Today, the garden numbers doctors, architects, schoolteachers, domestic workers, salesclerks, home-health workers, and retirees among the 74 people who tend 65 plots on more than 18,000 square feet of open space. In age, the gardeners range from college students to senior citizens, and there's always a waiting list.
The now-rich soil yields produce in such supply that the bounty is shared with scores of families in the neighborhood, and there's often some left to donate to Philabundance.
"You can grow a lot of stuff in a plot this size," says Saundres Bradley, 65, gesturing at the large central space where he has been nurturing vegetables since 1976. He figures he spends about two hours a day in his garden, where this year he grew tomatoes, okra, turnips, cucumbers, beans, peas, and peppers of many varieties. Success has depended on keeping it all watered, especially through the heat wave and dry spells that have wilted plants this summer.
"You should watch him sow seeds," Goldstein says of Bradley, whose roots go back to farming in the South. "He drops them with one hand and covers them with the other. It's like a dance - no motion is wasted."
Along one side of the garden, a community orchard - one of the first in the city - provides apples, peaches, plumcots, Asian pears, and figs. The berry patch yields raspberries. A grape arbor, shading a scarred old table and chairs, drips with ripe bunches, tempting gardeners taking a break from the sun to snack as they chat. There are also a community herb garden, shared flower beds, and several hives of honeybees that pollinate the plants and are tended by David Goltra.
On Sept. 29, when partygoers celebrate the jubilee, they'll eat barbecue prepared by Bradley, Yvonne Howard and Cynthia Lafferty in two large pits that have long provided an anchor for the garden's social life: Birthdays and even a wedding party have been held here.
"People don't have big yards, so this is our 'estate,' " says Lafferty, a Pennsport resident who planted her first plot in 1982.
Fifteen years ago, there was almost a birth here, too.
"I went into labor with my first child in the garden," says Carla Puppin, now the unofficial archivist. She wasn't about to let pregnancy keep her from gardening, and after working a couple of hours one morning, she went into labor. Her daughter Gabriella was born at 4:30 that afternoon. It wasn't too long before she was working alongside her mother.
The Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden was a success from the beginning. In 1977, just a year after it began, it became one of the early demonstration sites of the Penn State Extension Service's Urban Gardening Program, offering classes on recycling, food production, and nutrition. Philadelphia Green and other organizations provided technical help.
With Queen Village's gentrification, the garden was one of the first places where old and new residents could meet and work together, Goldstein says.
But the gardeners were always aware that the land where they were putting down roots was not theirs. Even vacant lots have owners, and they saw other gardens razed for development. So they were already exploring ways to acquire the land when suddenly, in 1983, the lot was put up for sale by the federal government.
Thanks to the intervention of politicians from Pennsylvania, the Reagan administration agreed in 1985 that the National Park Service could lease the land to the city for 10 years. And in 1991, at the request of Goode and others, the Park Service and the General Services Administration deeded the garden to the city in perpetuity, as long as it is used for recreational activities.
Meanwhile, as a result of the gardeners' initial explorations of land ownership, the Neighborhood Gardens Association/Philadelphia Land Trust was incorporated in 1986 and set about helping to preserve other community gardens started on abandoned land.
The Southwark/Queen Village group still doesn't own its garden. Instead, the city leases it to the Neighborhood Gardens Association and the gardeners run it, says Goldstein, who became a board member.
The garden has changed over the years. Today's gardeners are more likely to wrap their time there around busy careers. Gone are many of the elderly gardeners who spent all day among the plots. Remaining on the books, though, is a quirky bylaw that once warned fishermen: "No digging for worms."
The most beloved creature ever to grace the garden was probably Maxine, a neighborhood cat who adopted it as her personal turf in 1989. She was intensely interested in everything the gardeners did, and occasionally climbed onto bent-over backs to get a better look at whatever they were digging.
"Try picking radishes with a cat on your back," Goldstein quips. Maxine died in 1997 and was buried under the fig trees.
A huge mural - created by artist Isaiah Zagar, one of the originators of the South Street Renaissance, to mark the garden's 20th birthday - fills a wall on the west side of the garden. Cast in stone there are some notable names, including that of Ernesta Ballard, the visionary who began Philadelphia Green (and may be at the jubilee party). Prominent among them is Maxine's.
Somehow, that seems like proof of Goldstein's words: The garden "provides not only food, but spiritual nourishment to all of us."
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