Land Grab: Urban Tree Connection

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story by Ariela RoseThe Polselli lot at 53rd and Wyalusing in the Haddington section of West Philadelphia was a dangerous eyesore. Equipment from the owner’s contracting business, stripped cars and barrels of gasoline sat nestled in the overgrown weeds. Five years ago, the Urban Tree Connection (UTC) decided they wanted to transform the land into a farm. Unfortunately, the group had no ownership rights on the property.

“We couldn’t prove to the city that we could gain control of the ownership of that parcel,” explains Skip Wiener, founder and executive director of UTC. “They didn’t want to dump in unending amounts of money, because somebody else could walk in and buy it up.”

Hope for legal control of the lot was put on the back burner and, a year and half ago, UTC—with help from local volunteers—began work on the lot. This past summer, the group ran youth farming programs on the site and harvested 40 to 100 pounds of vegetables every week. All the while, UTC’s lawyer Joel Tasca collected signatures; on July 8, 2010, he submitted a petition for conservatorship.

The hearing was held on October 12, and UTC was granted legal control of the lot under the Pennsylvania Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act. Effective since early 2009, the act was created to allow nonprofits to revitalize abandoned buildings. Enacting it to create an urban farm was a revolutionary move.

“The conservator has the right to take possession and control of the property,” says Tasca. “For UTC’s purposes, that is really what we wanted.”

Using legal means to secure a vacant lot was a transformative experience for the nonprofit. For 20 years, Wiener and his team have practiced guerrilla gardening, scooping up abandoned properties in North and West Philadelphia and transforming them into green spaces. Wiener acknowledges that the victory raises questions about UTC’s methods going forward: “So, the issue then becomes—because of our victory in being appointed conservator—should we use the same techniques, or look at other techniques, or combine a series of techniques to gain control of this entire system? To control all the land?”

For now, the plan is to expand the amount of food grown on the Polselli lot. From there, the community will decide how and where the food is distributed, with ideas ranging from organizing a low-cost CSA to selling goods at local farmers’ markets.