(Photo by Rina Patel)
To thrive in the face of adversity, communities need a supportive space where its members can grow and learn from each other. Tommy Joshua learned that lesson 10 years ago when, for a short time, his North Philadelphia neighborhood was riddled with randomly set fires.
Joshua realized that the kids who were setting them had no after-school programs or adult guidance. So, he created a standalone basketball court in his backyard for them. From that, a mentoring program grew. The boys in the program started calling him “Brother Tommy.” The fires stopped.
From this experience, Joshua learned that proactivity is essential in empowering communities to mobilize themselves. A community organizer since he was 16 years old, the lifelong Sharswood resident comes from a family of builders and farmers. As a young man, Joshua believed in waking up neighborhoods to spring into action and self-organize. His work took him to Baltimore, New York, New England and other cities along the East Coast where he worked alongside a variety of organizations and people in the pursuit of social justice.
Eventually, he decided to come back to his roots: “I wanted to go local and organize,” he told me as we sat under a tree in a North Philadelphia garden, shielded by the afternoon summer sun.
Organize he did. Joshua is the cofounder of the North Philly Peace Park, a community garden and gathering space at N. 25th and Jefferson streets, which this spring was forced to move from its long-held spot on the 2400 block of Bolton Street in Sharswood after a long battle with Philadelphia Housing Authority.
The park was planted by community members during a time the city was facing issues with food deserts, cuts of social service programs and a shutdown of two schools in the neighborhood. But in 2014, after three and a half years of distributing more than three tons of locally grown vegetables, creating educational programs, and constructing a school house, the project came to a pause when PHA’s plans to construct 57 affordable housing units on the land was introduced.
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By that time, the park had over 1,400 volunteers, an operating budget of over $230,000, and a staff of eight people, according to Joshua. The construction of the school building alone had been a nine-month process, and by the end, the group had hired their own teachers and had enrolled 160 children. On Saturdays, they had a community-run academy for the children and youth. That year, they organized the Philadelphia Urban County Fair which gathered 600 people from Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
PHA fenced up the property around the time of the park’s harvest. Community members took the fence down and stood their ground.
“When I see the underutilization, poverty and devastation of human beings, and then I see lots with trash, it blows my mind,” Joshua said. “It can’t be. Something has to give. How can we make end roads to these big institutional challenges we face? Do we wait for politicians to pass legislation that will create quality schools? Do we wait for politicians or developers to actually address human needs? This is not going to happen unless the people take proactive action like the Peace Park had to do.”
After they refused to give up the land, PHA offered the group a one-year contract for two lots, and eventually, the park was forced to shut down its operations. Although the constructed school house still stands, the group is unable to use that piece of land for the North Philly Peace Park.
“We loved that land on Bolton Street,” Joshua said. “Even though it saddened us to leave, we didn’t feel welded to a piece of land. Every piece of land is our home.”
The community banded together and geared up for a community-led rebuild at the new space at 22nd and Jefferson. On June 15, the group collaborated with local community members, the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, Habitat for Humanity and Hip Hop Party to revive the park.
“We need to let the soil and plants recharge our DNA,” Joshua shared, with a smile on his face as he looked out into the garden. “We need to create a new paradigm of how we need to live and exist based on the land. This is the future of what we would like to see for Peace Town.”
Peace Town is Joshua’s vision of an ecologically focused “new city” made up of people who respect and work with the land that will include Sharswood, Strawberry Mansion, Francisville and other neighborhoods clustered in North Philadelphia, he explained. He hopes to actively work with the city of Philadelphia and other major cities across the United States to replicate the model of what North Philly Peace Park is now becoming.
“This is what I’m trying to tell the developers,” Joshua said. “You can build schools, you can build houses, you can build roads, you can build nice, shiny avenues with stores, but it’s all about the people. So let’s revitalize and help develop the people.”-30-
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