(Courtesy photo by Erin Blewett)
When members of the Philly Socialists formed the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden at Arlington and North Lawrence Streets in 2012, they did it to reclaim the vacant land for the community. They named the space after a Puerto Rican labor activist and playwright to bring a sense of identity to the Latinx residents in the neighborhood.
Today, the garden is filled with sculptures made by local artists, fruits and vegetables for neighbors to freely pick, and community members who host parties for families and friends. But last fall, a developer — JBA Group LLC — purchased one of the garden’s four, 15′ by 45′ parcels for $2,500. Since the current caretakers repurposed the vacant lot without actually buying the property, they have no say in the matter.
“If they decide to build, they don’t even have to ask us to move anything,” said Willow Zef, one of the garden’s caretakers. “They could just come and destroy the statue[s].”
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This situation is not unique to César Andreu Iglesias Garden. Many other community gardens across the city face the same fate, like La Finquita. Last year, after 30 years in operation at the corner of North Lawrence and Master Streets, La Finquita was forced to shut down after a developer purchased their property.
But for these gardens’ caretakers, these green environments bring a lot more benefits to the neighborhood than new development. According to Zef, the César Andreu Iglesias Garden gives community members a public space to organize and fresh food to eat. He said it also creates a sense of pride for residents that live in the neighborhood.
“I like sharing strawberries with them, giving them some tomatoes, or cutting some herbs for their dinner that night,” Zef said. “As social beings, it’s a place where you can relax and still be productive.”
Now, Zef and the other caretakers are grasping for any solution to preserve their land.
They planned to discuss initiatives with residents, city councilperson María Quiñones-Sánchez, and the developers in early April to discuss three options: ask the developers to donate the land, swap the parcel of land the developer bought with another parcel nearby (which requires the city’s help), or purchase the property from the developer.
After operating independently for years, the group is seeking assistance from outside organizations to help them navigate this issue.
"It’s a place where you can relax and still be productive."
They’re considering a partnership with the Neighborhood Gardens Trust (NGT), a nonprofit land trust that acquires and preserves community green spaces. NGT is affiliated with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and calls itself, “Philadelphia’s neighborhood garden protector,” according to Jenny Greenberg, executive director of NGT. Currently, the nonprofit oversees 45 gardens, totaling 13 acres of land throughout the city.
“Our primary mission is to support these community groups to be able to continue to maintain these spaces for generations to come,” Greenberg said. “We think it’s an essential part of the fabric of a healthy city and a healthy urban neighborhood.”
NGT’s aim is to create permanent green spaces, they work with groups that already have established spaces, like César Andreu Iglesias Garden. They act like a bridge that connects landholding agencies, which have the authority to transfer vacant or tax-delinquent properties to private ownership, to community gardeners. They also provide liability insurance, offer technical assistance, education, and capital improvements to the spaces, like flower bed rebuilding.
“We allow the gardeners to do what they do best — garden and not have to worry,” she said.
According to one of the garden’s caretakers Amy Gottsegen, building community is the most appealing part of her work at the garden — one of the many reasons to keep César Andreu Iglesias Garden intact for the neighborhood.
“A place where you can get to know your neighbors and work on a project together — I think that’s what it means to be a community garden,” Gottsegen said.-30-
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