Cover Story: Hold Your Turf

How Haddington used guerrilla gardening to transform its vacant lots, and why the city should encourage everyone to do the same
by Haley Loram


Someone left a busted couch at the edge of the Conestoga Children’s Garden, directly under the “No Dumping” sign. Skip Wiener, who tends to the network of gardens in the West Philly neighborhood of Haddington, pursed his lips and said, “That hasn’t happened in a while, but I’ll go talk to Cleveland after we’re done here; he might have seen who left it.” Cleveland owns the mechanic shop across the street, and he’s just one of the neighbors who keep an eye on the gardens.

Many of the people who live in Haddington are older and tend to own their homes, which gave them a painful front row view of the neighborhood’s evolution from its strong working-class roots into something dangerous. Wiener knows many of those folks. They saw drugs come in and watched as the neighborhood vacant lots become part of the, “staging grounds for the open-air drug market,” as he calls it.

The lots, tucked among people’s homes, were vacant stretches surrounded by chain-link fences and littered with garbage. They were so overgrown that dealers ran through them to escape the police, and so desolate that one was the site of the murders of four neighborhood children over the years. They are also where the neighborhood and Wiener have put down roots.

Wiener was born and raised about 10 blocks from Haddington. He has advanced degrees in Plant Physiology and Biology and in Landscape Design from Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, and he’s worked on urban greening programs for decades. In the ’90s, he worked at schools across Philadelphia—including Martin Luther King High School, Wright Elementary and Ada H. Lewis Middle School—creating gardens on their grounds, only to watch them wither during the summer months when no one was there to watch them.

About 10 years ago, Wiener took his skill for nurturing plants in an urban environment  beyond the school system. The William Penn Foundation funded gardens in Haddington as part of an experimental after-school program. Wiener was recruited to work on the where and how of those gardens. He used his connections in Haddington to launch the project, tapping on doors, chatting with parents and creating a network of gardens with neighborhood kids. Eventually he founded the nonprofit Urban Tree Connection.

But gardens don’t look that impressive in the off season. In October, Wiener sounded frustrated as he told the story of the adjoining Pearl Street Walkway and the Conestoga Children’s Garden. Gesturing at the scattered vegetable beds lying fallow, he said, “You need to see these in the growing season! With all the kids and the flowers and the vegetables.” To appreciate the network of community gardens that Wiener has helped create, you don’t need to see what the gardens look like at their peak so much as recognize that the spaces they occupy are no longer a blight and hazard, appreciate that this change happened “from the sidewalk up” with hardly any money, and understand why it worked.

As Wiener and his neighbors cleared the trash out of the lots again and again, uprooted the brush to create a clear, unbroken line of sight from one end of the garden to the other, replaced the tall chain-link fence with a knee-high split rail fence and defined paths through the lots with soft wood chips, the drug dealers gradually moved on.

Reclaiming their common backyard, the neighbors created clean, safe gardens where neighbors get together and children play. These are the people who know and have a stake in Haddington. Wiener recalled a conversation with a neighbor about the drug activity in the neighborhood, and how she said, “I’ve diapered most of the guys who sold drugs in this lot.” These gardens are held together and owned by that network of social ties, rather than fences or titles, and that’s where things get complicated.
Wiener gets called a “guerrilla gardener” because he tends to land that he doesn’t own. Technically, that’s illegal. But according to Terry Mushovic, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Gardens Association (NGA), this is how it’s always been done. “[Neighbors have to] get organized and put in the sweat equity first,” she says. “Getting legal control of vacant land is a long, slow process.”

Planting on vacant land has been the accepted way to create a garden in Philadelphia, a city of over 40,000 vacant lots covering 146 square miles, for 50 years. Urban gardening used to be such a part of our city’s DNA that, for decades, Philadelphia had a harvest show each September. People brought their best specimens of the usual vegetable suspects and occasional mini-crops of cotton and tobacco, part of the agricultural legacy of the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who migrated to Philadelphia from the Deep South between World War II and the early ’70s. That generation of “guerrilla gardeners” was supported from all sides.

In 1976, Penn State received funding from a Carter Administration anti-poverty program modeled on the Victory Gardens of the ’40s, which supported urban gardening to improve nutrition in poor communities. But the program also had an educational agenda—for city residents to understand how hard it is to grow food. The money funded eight demonstration gardens—at least two of which are still around today. Mushovic started the Awbury Arboretum garden in east Germantown in 1977, and it has been continuously cultivated by the community—and doubled in size twice—since. Down in Queen Village, Southwark/Queen Village community garden is on a city-owned plot of land that is permanently leased to NGA.

But the Penn State program also supported gardeners in more personal ways. Sally McCabe, who now runs the Garden Tenders program at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, used to grow enough grapes to make wine in her old community garden in Northern Liberties. However, she knows that gardening is about more than just plants, and that it takes chutzpah to actually put shovel to earth in a vacant lot.

“Gardening is less about plants and more about community organizing,” she says. “Some people just needed a blessing to get started.”

The workshops and encouragement paid off. In 1995, there were over 500 community gardens growing approximately $1.8 million worth of produce in Philadelphia, and an extra 500 non-food producers. However, when University of Pennsylvania professor Domenic Vitiello cataloged the city’s urban agriculture sites in the summer of 2008, there were only 220 left.

Where did the gardens go? Vitiello described showing up at the barren site of what used to be a flourishing garden in lower North Philadelphia. As he and his research assistants asked the neighbors if there used to be a garden there, they heard a story that would echo throughout their research.

“ ‘A man from the city came; he told us that we couldn’t have a garden there anymore, and then a bulldozer came,’ ” he says. Sometimes the city sent the bulldozers first and the explanation later.
It wasn’t just bulldozers that leveled Philly’s community gardens. There wasn’t as much competition for land from developers before the real estate boom took off in the late ’90s. In the late ’80s, NGA acquired the title to the 2.7-acre Glenwood Green Acres property at a sheriff’s sale for just $25,000.

The Bel Arbor Community Garden is in Bella Vista, on the southern edge of Center City. In October 1995, a group of neighbors received permission to start a garden from Christ’s United Presbyterian Church, which abuts a sliver of vacant land, without realizing that the space in question actually belonged to the New York developer who had turned most of the block into a CVS, Hollywood Video and parking lot. In 1999, the owner donated the land to NGA for a tax write-off.

Mushovic believes that there is no way that he would have donated the land a year later. “[The impression I got] from his attorney was that he had a really profitable year and just needed that tax break,” she says. However, the donation had a legal catch: If at any point the land is not an active garden, it has to be returned to the developer or to his heirs. Reversion clauses like this one are used to prevent an organization or person who receives a gift of land from developing it themselves.
Until 2006, the city of Philadelphia regularly donated vacant lots to the homeowners next to them through the “side-lots” program. However, depending on who you ask, a few too many of those lots were redeveloped or turned into parking lots, and now the city can only legally donate land to groups with a legal status, generally nonprofits. In addition, the Street administration changed the philosophy of the city’s greening programs. Instead of empowering neighbors to care for the land around them, the city took a top-down approach to greening the city through the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. They consolidated vacant lots into parcels that would be large enough to attract developers. Hence, the bulldozers.

With the funding dried up, the political and programmatic support for community gardens has withered. Now, starting a community garden in Philadelphia is not for the faint of will. For starters, you may want to get permission from the land owners before you start to plant. But where are the owners? If you find them, the city of Philadelphia would probably like to know. The city’s records are in disarray and there isn’t a transparent and accessible system for administering land. But, by Mushovic’s best guess, about half of the vacant lots are privately held and are often tax delinquent.

If you’ve got your eye on a lot that happens to be owned by the city, you can apply for a year-to-year gardening lease so the city knows that your garden exists. However, that lease gives you no recourse to stop development, and the goal of the Redevelopment Authority (RDA), which manages some of the city-owned land, has been to generate money for the city by selling abandoned properties and getting them back onto the tax rolls. Looking at Philadelphia’s projected $2 billion budget shortfall, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the city needs to get the full value from our vacant land. But liens against the property from back taxes make it hard for the city to recoup losses from vacant properties. Furthermore, the pressure to build on every available piece of land just isn’t what it used to be.

Wiener has an example of how fruitful it can be for the city to leave the bulldozers in the shed. Every growing season Urban Tree Connection uses formerly vacant lots to connect with about 120 neighborhood kids per week in the Veggie Kids program. Not only does it keep them out of trouble, the kids grew about 1,000 pounds of produce last summer and distributed it by wheelbarrow to 22 families that they knew. And the things that they grew! As Wiener put it, “almost any seasonal vegetable that you can [imagine] around came out of those gardens.” They’re looking to double their output this year, and a new city program could make RDA land available for other urban farming projects at no cost to farmers.

None of that will happen if the gardens disappear. Wiener knows the importance of keeping your eyes and hands on the land around us. “In the hood, you have to hold your turf.”