Sowing Seeds of Change:
Down On The Farm In Philadelphia
Some People Are Boldly Rethinking What A City Can Be. On Blighted Or Forgotten Blocks, They See Fields Of Opportunity.
A Three Part Article
Part 1 Down On The Farm In Philadelphia
Part 2 Good For The Ground, Good For The Growers
Part 3 Amid The Blight Of A City, A Bounty Of Crops Grows
Sunday, October 12, 1997
Reprinted from the Philadelphia Inquirer
By Howard Goodman, Inquirer Staff Writer
Imagine the abandoned factories of Philadelphia's stranded neighborhoods reawakened, producing and pulsing with people at work.
Imagine new life for those brick industrial hulks, in which a bygone Philadelphia made locomotives, hats, saw blades, elevators - now pickings for vandals and shelters for addicts.
Imagine them as Kate Smith does. The agricultural economist, raised on an Iowa farm, aches for the squandered city.
She's eyeing those huge, dark interiors left over from the Industrial Revolution. And she has an idea for them.
Why not? Mushrooms are grown indoors. They require a steady supply of unskilled or semiskilled labor, and the city has plenty of that. There's a growing niche market for specialty foods, gourmet or organic.
The idea might collapse when it collides with financial and technical realities. But Smith is optimistic.
"The one thing I know is that everyone has to eat,'' she says, "and the one sure market is food.''
Mushrooms are just one of the brainstorms of a small, unconventional group of Philadelphians - community leaders, intellectuals, businesspeople - who are thinking about the future of the city, and saying "why not?'' instead of "no way.''
Idea by idea, they are developing a mind-stretching vision of a future Philadelphia. With a nudge here and a nudge there, they're tilting the very notion of "city'' to dizzying angles.
They are imagining a Philadelphia that employs hundreds or thousands of people in industries based on urban agriculture and fish farming, and spin-offs such as food processing, distribution and marketing.
They're imagining a city that punctures its concrete with new forests and green fields to boost real-estate values and refresh the soul. They're envisioning an educational system that emphasizes plant and animal care as a means of inculcating humane values.
"There's a very healing energy in countryside, being close to the earth and farmland, appreciating nature in your life,'' says Alan Hunter, a Queen Village planner who is bringing many of these thinkers together in an effort he calls the Urban Earth Project.
"Those things are missing from the urban environment,'' he says. "All our land has been cemented over, and we've lost a piece of something that's very valuable.''
Hunter's not alone in sensing this. In North Philadelphia, activist Rosalind Johnson is the proud overseer of Pennsylvania's first accredited urban organic farm. It's improbably located on a block surrounded by sagging rowhouses a short walk from Broad Street. Several dozen shareholders, paying a yearly $550 per household, take their pick of fresh beets, carrots, collards, kale, watermelon.
"We're talking about poor people having access to food - fresh food,'' Johnson says. "With welfare reform, we've got to do a lot more about food security, making sure people get enough to eat.''
Meantime, the Delaware River Port Authority and the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School are breeding hopes for a Philadelphia fish-farming industry.
Leon Weiss, a Penn cell biologist who heads the project, envisions a large hatching operation at the Navy Yard. Young fish bred there would be trucked to fatten up in outlying farms (where there are plenty of ponds) or inner-city warehouses (in high-tech tanks using recirculating water).
The operation could produce upward of 20 million pounds of fish a year, Penn researchers say. Add a processing plant to fillet, freeze, package and ship frozen fish, and you're talking 1,000 to 2,000 new jobs, Weiss says.
"There's a very good likelihood that this could pay off,'' says DRPA chairman Manny Stamatakis, a businessman with interests in insurance, real estate and a telephone company. "I think there's real potential here.''
The DRPA, whose mission includes economic development, has approved $450,000 for a two-year pilot project. Penn researchers have ordered two tanks from Norway. By January, a team of engineers, scientists, animal-husbandry experts, Fine Arts School architects, and Wharton School financial and marketing specialists hopes to be growing fish, zeroing in on potential markets and learning how to increase yields and limit costs.
Weiss estimates the fine-tuning will take a year. After that, the port authority will line up private companies to go into production.
"I've gotten a lot of calls from people in the business world who want to get into this now,'' Stamatakis says. "But we want to put together a sound strategy first.''
Over on the fungi front, businessman-turned-activist Hunter is polishing grant proposals to elevate mushroom-raising from an idea to a reality. He's looking for money for marketing studies and technical analyses. A demonstration mushroom-raising operation would follow. He has a few South Philadelphia sites in mind.
"We want to create 500 jobs,'' says David Auspitz, owner of the Famous 4th Street Delicatessen in Queen Village and an urban-farming romantic.
"Mushrooms, fish, whatever. Mushrooms are the starting point. There might be more money in sage, rosemary, sprouts, worms - who cares? The point is, this is a legitimate way to create jobs.
"Can I give you the address of where it's going to be? Tell you how many employees we're going to have? No.
"But I can show you a big light at the end of the tunnel. And the tunnel is very short.''
To Kate Smith, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies the outlook for farming in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the economics of urban agriculture make perfect sense.
Farmland in places such as Lancaster County, once in abundant supply, is rapidly giving ground to suburban development. Within Philadelphia, toppled housing, torched warehouses and thinning population have left large swaths of the city flat and desolate.
Perhaps those demoralized spaces are clearings, waiting to be cultivated.
"I have a vision,'' Smith says as she rides past poverty-stricken Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia last summer, "of what it's going to look like - growing things everywhere, and not just weeds, but growing things that people are tending and using.''
With 27,000 abandoned homes and 16,000 vacant lots, the cityscape is opening up to imaginative reconceptions. The city's Office of Housing and Community Development advocates a neighborhood strategy of suburban-style single-family homes, complete with yards and driveways, in areas once dense with rowhouses.
Philadelphia already is remarkably green, its more than 2,000 community gardens known as a national model. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is in the midst of an ambitious program to further beautify vacant lands. Fairmount Park is one of the largest urban oases in the world.
What Smith and others are talking about is a step beyond. Their idea is to look upon agriculture as a new direction for the city's economy as well as its spirit.
"It's an interesting idea,'' says Sister Carol Keck, director of the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, a community group that has long promoted grassroots environmental activities in North Philadelphia. "I like the idea of focusing on the inner city, where people can get closer to the source of their food.''
Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for Mayor Rendell, couldn't resist a joke. "The idea of farming is certainly an idea that grows on you,'' he says. But seriously, "we'll listen to anybody who has an idea about the better use of land and the creation of jobs.''
City Councilman Frank DiCicco says he has asked for the state Department of Agriculture's counsel on the mushroom idea.
"I'm very enthusiastic,'' says DiCicco, a former president of the Italian Market Civic Association. "I don't see any downside to it.''
Agriculture used to be common in cities - if you were an Aztec, an Inca or a Babylonian. Only a century ago, one-sixth of Paris was farmland - the marais, producing greens, fruits and vegetables year-round on soil enriched by manure from workhorses.
Urban farming is still commonplace in many of the world's cities. Hong Kong produces lots of its own poultry and vegetables. China grows tons of vegetables in urban areas. In Mexico City, potatoes sprout in stacked tires. In Haiti, vegetables flourish in rooftop compost beds.
A U.N. study published last year counted 800 million urban farmers worldwide, accounting for 15 percent of the globe's food supply - an "overlooked, underestimated and underreported'' resource, the authors say.
City farming has made inroads in the United States, too. In Los Angeles County, nearly 100 growers sell produce to farmers markets only minutes from their fields. Many of those fields lie under electric power lines on land owned by Southern California Edison.
In Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, gardens managed by homeless people, prisoners and the poor are raising vegetables and incomes within city limits.
In inner-city Detroit, a group called Gardening Angels is reclaiming drug dealers' turf with compost and trowels at about 200 locations. One man has planted six acres of oats in the middle of the city. Kate Smith, on a tour, saw him recently. He was on a tractor.
Signs point to a flowering trend. By 2035, the amount of land and water used for farming worldwide is expected to shrink by a third while the Earth's population expands by two-thirds, according to Jac Smit, president of the Urban Agriculture Network, a policy group that wrote the report for the U.N. Development Program.
As soon as 2000, "it seems likely that fully half of the human family will be city dwellers,'' says William E. Rees, professor and director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia.
To these researchers, farming closer to where people live is only logical. Doing so would save on food transportation and refrigeration costs. City wastes could be recycled as fertilizer.
"What if sewage and garbage were prime inputs to food production?'' Smit wrote in a summary of the U.N. report, bureaucratese giving way to excitement.
"What if the urban landscape were edible? What if vacant waste land in cities were productive and enhancing the environment for living? What if urban areas were increasing biodiversity rather than diminishing it?''
On the speck of Earth called North Philadelphia, Kate Smith's idea for mushroom-growing "seems to make sense, on the face of it,'' says John Urbanchuck, an agricultural economist with AUS Consultants, a research firm in Moorestown.
Mushrooms are "ideally suited'' to become an inner-city industry, Urbanchuck says. Pennsylvania already produces 45 percent of the nation's mushrooms (787 million pounds last year, mostly in Kennett Square). Urbanchuck sees no reason the state's share can't grow even larger.
"Hell, we're importing processed [as opposed to fresh] mushrooms,'' Urbanchuck says, "and I believe that if we can produce a homegrown mushroom for the processing market, we ought to do it.''
Which could lead to the establishment of processing plants, canning operations - who knows what?
"Next thing you know, you're making Mrs. Alvarez's Salsa and Somebody-or-Other's Italian Sauce,'' muses Auspitz, the deli owner. "Philadelphia used to be the heart of manufacturing for the world, and we want to bring that back. Starting with mama and papa.''
Mushroom-growing is not simple. The commonplace mushroom is grown in compost, a pungent mixture of straw and horse manure or hay and crushed corncobs. A mushroom is a fungus that must be tended constantly.
"It's a very labor-intensive operation,'' says Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Institute, the nation's growers group. "Mushrooms are all picked by hand. It's tough work.'' Workers typically get minimum wage, plus additional pay on a piecework basis.
Phelps says she knows of no mushroom operations set up in cities, though, in a couple of places, residential areas have sprung up around existing farms.
Mushroom houses must be air-conditioned because the plants need lots of circulating air, Phelps says: "You have to think about the costs of power usage.''
Other problems: Acquiring compost. Disposing of compost.
In Kennett Square and other mushroom-producing locales, neighbors have complained about the pungent smell of the waste (growers prefer to call that odor "the smell of money''), which is typically spread over fields, "cooked,'' and collected for sale as potting soil.
Another likely problem for the would-be urban mushroom magnate is the prevalence of hazardous materials at old industrial sites. The costs of cleanup might thwart the best-intentioned developer.
"Hazmat is a big challenge,'' Smith concedes. "But I bet there are people out there, ready with solutions.''
One possibility, used on the West Coast to grow sprouts, is to use old semitruck trailers, bringing them indoors, making them air-tight, and growing the mushrooms inside. If contamination is so severe that it threatens workers, it might be necessary to dig up the ground, place a physical barrier, and top it with "clean'' material.
"Obviously, this would be costly,'' Smith says, "which is why a low hazmat is where I would start.''
For crops ranging from tomatoes to peppers, one answer to the chancy chemistry of city soil might lie in hydroponics, the growing of plants in water and nutrients.
"You could use simple white plastic pipes and a recirculating water system,'' says Julia Ungar, a Philadelphia environmental consultant, describing a system widely used by commercial growers. "Just hang your pipes at different levels and grow your produce.''
In Detroit, where many lots are contaminated with mercury, lead and other industrial debris, gardeners cap the city soil with a thick bed of compost and dead leaves. They cover it with a layer of topsoil before planting seeds.
Urban fish farming, by comparison, is not so simple.
"The technology still has a way to go,'' says John Ewart, aquaculture specialist at the College of Marine Studies of the University of Delaware. Another problem is to find a reliable set of customers. Niche markets can be extremely volatile.
On the other hand, the overall market for fresh fish in urban centers is growing, particularly among fanciers of Asian cuisines, Ewart says. And a fish farmer can guarantee a consistent quality, supply and price year-round, all pluses for an entrepreneur.
It's not in the big city, but Delftree Corp. of tiny North Adams, Mass., has been growing shiitake mushrooms for 17 years in an abandoned 1902 textile mill.
Company president Willard Greenwald says Delftree employs about 25 workers in the northwest Massachusetts hamlet, producing 300,000 pounds a year of the specialty crop, 5 percent of the national market.
Shiitakes, dark mushrooms originally from Asia, are grown differently from standard mushrooms. They require some light instead of an enveloping darkness, and their medium is wood, not compost - sawdust in Delftree's case.
Greenwald's 125,000-square-foot operation is a complex of pipes, racks and specialized machines.
"It's taking a local dirt farm,'' Greenwald says with a certain awe, "and putting it under a roof.''
Greenwald warned that large initial investments and low profit margins make it "scary'' to enter the mushroom business. While "four or five'' entrepreneurs have made plans to enter the shiitake-producing business in recent years, none has actually done it, he says.
"My theory,'' Greenwald says, "is that unless you're able to get lots of grant money, you cannot produce a profitable shiitake mushroom farm.'' Greenwald bought his operation at a fire-sale price after the founder died and was aided by local tax breaks.
Phelps, too, is wary of the economics. With mushroom prices remaining "fairly stagnant'' in recent years, only "one or two'' new farms have gone into business in the last decade, and those were owned by existing mushroom companies, the American Mushroom Institute official says.
"If anyone wants to go into it, I say good luck,'' she says.
For Smith, these aren't obstacles so much as opportunities. A lanky woman with long, straight hair, gentle brown eyes, and a trace of Plains innocence in her voice, she says she feels a close connection to Philadelphia, notwithstanding her rural Midwest roots.
"I feel I have a responsibility to make it a better place,'' she says.
Riding along American Street one morning, she takes in the desolation of the wide avenue, once a ribbon of industry, now a moonscape interrupted here and there by an old warehouse or factory building that has managed to escape the arsonists.
"Try to imagine what this would feel like if there were food being grown all around here,'' Smith says. "How the energy would change.'' Her dream includes education, along with production. "So that people can get entrepreneurial training, and eventually go out and start their own urban farm or business.''
Smith can picture it all happening in a four-story building. "On the roof, there's water collection,'' she says. "There's a greenhouse on the next floor down. The next floor down, we grow sprouts and maybe have a transplanting area. Next floor, shiitake mushrooms, or maybe two floors of shiitakes. It's as much of a biological unit as possible.''
At the moment, it's all in the imagining stage. "I think it will really take a great design team to come together,'' Smith says, "to really come up with the biological processes and the design, which nobody has come up with yet. We just have to get the team together. I think the people are here.''
She hopes to spearhead such a team. She's applying for grants and considering a leave of absence - or, if need be, a job change - so she can move to Philadelphia and put the project into gear.
Driving past a forlorn North Philadelphia intersection with boarded windows, discarded tires, graffiti and strewn garbage, Smith says: "Philadelphia is so beautiful.''
She mentions the first Quaker settlers, who "talked about how Philadelphia was a place of enormous abundance, wildlife and the fowl that was there. And how everything grew.''
As she examines the damaged city of today, she says, she keeps that antique picture in her head and wonders what it would take for that abundant city to come back to life. She takes heart from Philadelphia's niche in history as a place where monumental things began: The Constitution. William Penn's Holy Experiment.
She says, "I really think the universe is pulling for Philadelphia.''
Good For The Ground,
Good For The Growers
Sunday, October 13, 1997
Reprinted from the Philadelphia Inquirer
By Howard Goodman, Inquirer Staff Writer
The settlers found a rich earth, thickly forested with oak, black walnut, chestnut, cypress, hickory, beech, pine and elm. William Penn, dreaming his "green countrie towne'' of peace and tolerance, envisioned it peopled sparingly with farmers surrounded by gardens, orchards and fields.
But a city grew instead: first, a bustle of artisans, traders, merchants and ships; then, a behemoth of factories, rowhouses, narrow streets and towering smokestacks - a city built for an industrial age that came and went, leaving a wreckage of exhausted buildings, crumbling brick and broken glass, mile upon disheartening mile.
The earth still lies there, of course, buried beneath concrete and asphalt, unseen and unfelt by people above.
Yet an ancient wisdom holds that men and women have a primal need to connect to the earth - to soil, plants and animals. To some Philadelphians, that inmost yearning is a key to a better future for a battered city.
The time has come, they say, to revive Penn's pastoral vision.
"We have to bust up the concrete and let the earth cough, let it breathe again,'' says Alan Hunter, an activist from Queen Village who has created a network that includes scientists, economists, teachers and community leaders in an effort he calls the Urban Earth Project.
Though starting from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, this growing circle of Philadelphians shares a common conviction: that the harshness, bleakness and aggression so profuse in cities would be tempered by a kind of self-ruralization of America's fifth-largest city.
"Obviously, it's not the whole answer,'' Hunter says, "but as you think about a possible future for the city, you've got to think about man's relationship to nature. I think there are answers here for future food sources, for future jobs, for people coming off welfare and on to what?''
That mostly intuitive conviction is bolstered by science. Researchers have found therapeutic value in greenery. In one study, hospital patients with a window view of a park and trees needed fewer painkillers and left the hospital a day earlier than people whose windows looked out upon another building. Similar improvements were seen in patients who merely looked at paintings of natural scenery, rather than pictures of a city streetscape.
A three-year study by the U.S. Forest Service found that the 51 million trees in the Chicago area removed 6,145 tons of air pollutants in 1991 and kept 155,000 tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. The trees also reduced summer temperatures and cooling bills.
The foresters calculated that Chicagoans would plant 95,000 trees between 1992 and 1997, and that the benefits (in saved energy, reduced storm-water runoff and improved air) would outweigh the costs of planting and maintenance by $38 million, or $402 a tree.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that people with pets at home stand a better chance of surviving a heart attack, that being with a pet lowers a person's blood pressure.
Aaron Katcher, one of those Penn researchers, has also discovered that when troubled teenagers care for young animals, they become less violent.
Findings such as these are fuel for Hunter's enthusiasm.
"Do we bulldoze a block at a time? Do we reforest the land, bring back animals?'' he asks in all seriousness. "It's all got to be explored.''
Katcher, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at Penn's veterinary school, has applied the lessons of his laboratory to troubled children and lonely oldsters.
In January, he helped set up a small zoo in a ground-floor room at Thomas Middle School in South Philadelphia. He left a chinchilla, hamster, rabbit, hedgehog, white rat and guinea pig in small cages, and put children in charge of their care and feeding.
The idea came from one of his research findings: that talking to a pet is much less stressful for people than talking to another person. Maybe handling small animals would help emotionally disturbed children.
The Thomas school zoo helped more children than expected. It proved "to have benefits for all of our students who came in contact with it,'' principal Frederick Donatucci says.
Special-education teacher Cheryl Tavares, who headed the project last spring, says that caring for the dozen small animals brought quiet children out of their shells. Conversely, it quieted the overly active.
"I told them that if you yell or scream, you could literally scare an animal to death,'' Tavares says. "We have one little boy who has a very loud, very penetrating voice, and it's interesting how, when he comes in, he tries to keep his voice down. It's not easy for him, but he's able to do it when he's there.''
One 12-year-old girl was so withdrawn, "her parents were concerned she was autistic,'' Tavares says. "You should see how she's really blossomed. She's talking, especially to the guinea pigs.''
The Thomas school zoo was based on a similar project that Katcher has run for seven years for aggressive and disruptive boys in therapy at the Devereux Foundation in Chester County. The Devereux zoo's only rules: Be gentle and respectful to the animals. Wash your hands before and after handling them. And respect other students.
"Aggression and violence were almost absent,'' Katcher says. That went for children who, in other classes, often had to be restrained and medicated because of explosive outbursts. To boot, the boys learned about animal care and biology.
Katcher, who has expanded the program to Fell and Greenfield Elementary Schools, says society pays a heavy penalty for having divorced itself from the animal world.
"If boys don't have experience with animals, they have much less experience with nurturing,'' says Katcher, a slight and soft-spoken man with gray, curly hair. "Once we lost farming as an enterprise, men lost an important outlet for caregiving.''
The consequence? "What we value in a male tends to get structured around aggression,'' Katcher says. City kids, in other words, revere the gunslinger, not the settler.
Urbanites would be better off psychologically and spiritually, Katcher says, if they held the farmer (hayseed! rube! clodhopper!) in higher regard. In essayist Wendell Berry's phrase, farmers "are androgynous.''
"The farmer is there at birth, he raises, he feeds, he tends, he cares, but he also kills,'' Katcher says.
"It's a necessity of life that you have things that you know how to take care of,'' he says, "and that you do take care of. It's part of being human. If you invest in care - while you're doing it, at least - you can't be aggressive.''
But let's not overromanticize the charms of rustic life. Historically, it was the rural South - sometimes the West - that was the most violent place in the country, says Roger Lane, author of Murder in America: A History.
"As recently as the 1950s, Philadelphia and New York had lower murder rates than the national average,'' says Lane, a professor at Haverford College. "Violence is not inherent to urban life. Cities historically have been civilizing places.''
Only recently - with the advent of the postindustrial city, which provides no secure full-time jobs for young men and fails to absorb their energy or give them hope and direction - have cities become so violent, he says.
"There's nothing magical about getting your hands dirty, as far as aggression goes,'' Lane says.
Point taken, says Katcher, acknowledging that the old, rural America was marked by terrible poverty and most of the gun ownership. But, he says, it's important to note that when rural people emigrated to cities earlier this century, old habits and family structures got lost. Among them: "Children no longer saw men as nurturers of animals or often of their families.''
Devout in his belief in the civilizing influence of animal care, Katcher would establish a grazing area in FDR Park. "Take a section of the park, put a fence around it, put some cows and sheep there, demonstrate what milking is all about,'' he says. "You can produce organic milk, employ somebody as a goatherd. You could do a lot of things.''
In the Southwark housing project, where public-housing towers are being replaced by a community of townhouses, Katcher would see that provisions for pet ownership be made as essential as driveways. He means "backyards, or places where people could let their animals run free.''
"The idea is, you want to think about animals and gardens as being a necessary part of people's lives.''
Animals were still a part of city life when Margaret Sanelli was a girl. She's a regular at senior-citizen programs at the Winnet Community Center. She grew up in Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the center, where, all these decades later, Katcher has established a mini-zoo in a former sewing room.
"My father raised birds in the kitchen,'' says Sanelli, who stops by nowadays to feed the hamster and pet the chinchilla. "We had ducks and chickens in the backyard. The chickens would lay eggs.
"It was nicer then. People were nicer.''
One morning not long ago, Rita Nardo, 67, was feeding a guinea pig.
"Hey, you, c'mere,'' she said, sticking her fingers between the wires of the cage and offering a slice of apple. "You bite me,'' she kidded, "I'll bite you right back.''
She petted the animal, but she seemed the one being soothed.
"They're good for your pressure,'' Nardo said. "They keep you occupied.''
Katcher thinks it significant that humans spent four million years of evolution living in close contact with nature.
"I think something in our brains is programmed to respond to plants and animals,'' he says.
The great migration to cities happened only within the last 100 years, a millisecond on the evolutionary clock.
"It may have been an unfortunate experiment,'' Katcher says.
Alan Hunter, 56, is a burly man with a white mustache, a wide-eyed gaze, and a large imagination.
A former stockbroker, he spent a couple of decades in Huntingdon Valley. In 1989, he returned to the South Philadelphia of his youth with a self-appointed mission: to do his bit to save the blighted city.
Hunter's second-floor office on South Fourth Street is an unexpectedly spare and tranquil space, decorated in an odd combination of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia and American Indian art. He retreats here to think. The decor reflects his equal respect for the logical tradition of the fictional English super-sleuth and the spirituality of the visionary Indians.
His ruminations, he says, brought him to "an intuitive understanding that nature is very important to the healing of cities.''
Hunter's immersion in urban environmentalism began three years ago, when he caught the news that Sun Oil Co. had agreed to pay $1.25 million to clean up oil spills from its refinery along the Schuylkill. An empty victory, Hunter thought. As he saw it, South Philadelphians were getting nothing from the deal.
"All we had was one bunch of lawyers forcing another bunch of lawyers to send $1 million to Washington, D.C.,'' Hunter says.
With a background as a consultant on alternative sentencing for white-collar criminals, Hunter decided to intervene in the federal court settlement. But he needed a client. Doggedly, he rounded up 16 neighborhood organizations in South and Southwest Philadelphia.
"They didn't know they had anything in common,'' Hunter says. "They were black, white, Asian, they lived in different parts of the city.
"But they came to see that they were breathing the same air and drinking the same water. They all had the same kinds of hopes for their kids. And they all had a common indignation at what's been happening to our city.''
Many meetings and $80,000 in legal fees later, the coalition had wrested a rare grassroots victory: Half of the $1.25 million settlement was rerouted to local environmental needs.
The deal, announced a year ago, provides money to buy a $300,000 specialized truck for the Fire Department to handle oil and chemical spills. An additional $350,000 will restore about two acres of wetlands at historic John Bartram Gardens Park in Southwest Philadelphia, and help create a school science program to teach about wetlands and the importance of the river.
The school program formed the basis for a course called "Learning to Love the Urban Earth,'' devised by Hunter with help from the Academy of Natural Sciences. It was launched in several Philadelphia public and parochial schools last spring.
Children studied tap water, mammals, birds and insects. Activities revolved around FDR Park, at the city's extreme south end. Hunter is talking up plans with the Academy for building a center there, perhaps the first of its kind in the nation, to study the urban environment.
For Mary Anne Olsen, a teacher at Bok Vocational High School, the school program proved a revelation last spring when she took her special-education students to FDR Park for lessons on insects and a community cleanup day. Although the school is only 1 3/4 miles away from the park, few of the teenagers had been there before.
"There's so much violence in the city,'' Olsen says. "I truly believe in that park. Kids need to go there and work out their problems there. If they get their hands dirty, watch birds fly and butterflies float, it'll calm them down.''
Her students live on streets so dangerous, their parents often refuse to let them leave the house, Olsen says.
"The park gave them a sense of freedom,'' she says. "It was safe there. Police were there. And that's what kids are looking for. People were friendlier, too.''
In 22 years of teaching, "it was the first time I came out of the classroom and into the community'' with her students, Olsen says. She credits Hunter with getting her involved: "It was a real shot in the arm for my teaching.''
A similar project, unrelated to any of Hunter's activities, got under way last year at John Wanamaker Middle School, near Temple University in North Philadelphia. Academically, Wanamaker is one of the lowest-ranked schools in the city.
Locally based environmental consultants Julia Ungar and Ignatius P. Weekes launched an experimental curriculum that stressed botany for about 400 children.
The Wanamaker students grew plants from seeds. They did landscaping. They made and sold floral arrangements for Christmas and Mother's Day. They brought home 71 ribbons from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Harvest Show and the Junior Flower Show.
"People said it would never work: `The kids will destroy the garden, they're very destructive,' '' Ungar says. "But it never happened that way. It was just the opposite. The kids got very defensive about their plants.''
Grades improved. Attitudes, too.
"It used to be that kids emulated the bad kids. We just turned that around,'' Ungar says. "We made it a privilege to work with Mr. Iggy or Miss Julie. A lot of the kids ended up as role models.''
Ungar and Weekes heard that many of the boys tended toward trouble. They never saw any evidence of it when the students were working on their botany projects.
"It was a civilizing influence, but even much more than that,'' Ungar says. "It was almost spiritual in a sense. When you become focused on something other than yourself and outside your own little environment, you get involved in a life process.
"We always made the connections between plants and humans,'' she says, "that both need love and care and nurturing.''
Amid The Blight Of A City, A Bounty Of Crops Grows On The Unlikeliest Of Soil, A City Group Harvests Produce And Plans To Create Jobs.
Sunday, October 14, 1997
Reprinted from the Philadelphia Inquirer
By Howard Goodman, Inquirer Staff Writer
As steely as any besieged Lancaster County farmer, as attached as any Great Plains sodbuster, Rosalind Johnson protects her ground - a loamy half-block of North Philadelphia, rich with the smell of fresh earth amid the broken glass, hollowed-out houses, and stunted prospects of the beat-up city.
Her parcel of North Carlisle Street was littered with trash and claimed as drug addicts' turf when she cleared it three years ago and started planting herbs, trees, fruits and vegetables.
"There will always be a demand for fresh produce,'' Johnson says. "Why not start growing it here?''
Johnson is founder of Sea Change, a nonprofit that mixes horticulture, black culture and counterculture. Urban farming is more than an idea to this group. Its members are fighting blight by harvesting produce on neglected land.
A five-member staff is trying to create inner-city job opportunities through activities that improve the environment. The dream is of an "eco-village,'' a community that promotes self-sufficiency and environmentalism in north-central Philadelphia.
The group's motto: "We cannot change the wind, but we can adjust the sail.''
These days, Sea Change is up against a gale. City redevelopment officials are seeking to build and rehabilitate 500 homes, a plan tied to the Apollo arena project at nearby Temple University.
They're eyeing Johnson's newly verdant plot.
"They want to put houses here,'' Johnson says, standing near neat strips of collards, kale and eggplant and a hand-lettered sign that reads: "Garden of Eatin'.'' "We're trying to say that food security is very important.''
Sharing the same worries as heartland beneficiaries of Farm Aid is just one sign of Johnson's success in bringing serious agriculture to the inner city.
Another came in April, when Certified Organic, of Centre County, Pa., gave its blessing to Sea Change's Carlisle Street garden. The organization inspects farms throughout Pennsylvania and issues certifications meant to assure consumers that organic produce is, so to speak, strictly kosher. Branding a city farm "certified organic'' was something new.
"Sea Change is truly one of a kind,'' says Julia Ungar, a Philadelphia-based environmental educator who occasionally works with Johnson's group. "From what we've heard, it's the only urban organization working on organic farming or tree farming'' in the United States.
"In a broader sense, the idea of turning urban areas into food-producing areas, the idea that food doesn't just happen on the farm anymore, it's amazing. You'd think the city would be the last place where you could produce a viable food crop.''
You'd think that before you saw Sea Change's farmstead, at Carlisle and Oxford Streets. In one corner sits a tree farm - 150 trees, 6 to 8 feet fall. The potted grove shares the block with boarded-up rowhouses, a small auto-repair shop called Bill's Garage, and a parking lot with old cars protected by razor wire.
Plans call for planting several thousand trees at other lots around the city, which could mean about a dozen new jobs in nursery-tending and landscaping.
Sea Change has another organic farm at the Awbury Arboretum in East Germantown, where it farms about an acre and a half.
Besides trees, the Carlisle Street farm features a compost pile, a small mountain of mulch, and raised beds of herbs, fruits (melons, strawberries) and vegetables (arugula, cauliflower, peas, potatoes, squash).
Most of the produce is sold through a plan called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Full shares, at $550, entitle members to pick 20 to 25 pounds of vegetables and herbs every week of the growing season, enough for a family of four.
Sea Change sells some of its produce at a farmers' market on Germantown Avenue near Lehigh Avenue at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia. Chefs at the White Dog Cafe and Tequila's have raved about the Sea Change habanero peppers. Johnson is talking to local community groups about producing and marketing zucchini bread, salsa and pesto.
Funding for the CSA project came from the University of Vermont, which administers a U.S. Department of Agriculture program for experimental ventures. So far, Sea Change has managed on a shoestring.
"My accountant says, `I can't believe the things you've done on nothing,' '' Johnson says.
The point, though, is to be economically viable. "In a year or two, I think we'll be self-sufficient,'' says Kamalesh Stephen, Sea Change's economic developer.
Johnson was raised in the Richard Allen Homes and Germantown. She worked as a marketing professional before hearing the siren call of ecology. When she launched Sea Change, she was frustrated by the inability to get fresh fruits and vegetables in the city.
"I wanted to get kids involved in growing agriculture and horticulture,'' Johnson says. "Right now, only 1 percent of African Americans pursue this kind of career. There's a negative connotation, connected to slavery. But we can use agricultural science in a creative way, with knowledge.''
Some two dozen children and teenagers work on the group's produce beds. "Parents love us,'' she says.
Urban farming seems a logical alternative to the pressure on rural farmlands, Johnson says. Philadelphia, she notes, has a longer growing season than Lancaster County because the city climate is warmer.
Sea Change is also considering fish farming. With a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, the group studied the feasibility of inner-city aquaculture. The results were promising enough for Johnson to start planning a tour of fish farms around the country. She says there are ways of going into business for not much money.
She is eyeing sites in West Philadelphia and Fairmount Park. "We'll produce 150,000 pounds of fish a year,'' she says, and about 30 new jobs.
Johnson speaks of her projects in terms of environmental justice.
"Many minority communities are hard hit with environmental problems,'' she says. "Bad soil, the land riddled with trash. This is a way to create a healthier environment. Take empty spaces and develop them into productive spaces.''
Johnson doubts she'll be able to keep her little acre, a half-block south of Cecil B. Moore Avenue and a block west of Broad Street. The group leases the plot from the city Redevelopment Authority. Johnson expects the authority to take it for housing, as part of a compromise between City Council President John F. Street and Temple. The deal freed the university to build the Apollo arena for basketball and other big events.
"It hurts,'' says Stephen, the Sea Change economic-development specialist, "especially for Roz. She's done so much here. She's worked so hard.''
Sea Change - adjusting its sail, if unable to change the wind - has offers to move elsewhere in North Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, the suburbs.
"We're focused on a movement,'' Johnson says. "Sustainable development.''