On a simple walk around some sections of West Philadelphia it’s easy to find vacant lots just sitting there seemingly begging for someone to do something with them.
This was the case with an 11,580 square-foot plot of vacant land sitting underneath the SEPTA El stop at 46th and Market streets. However, a walk past that land now finds unused space replaced by a thriving urban farm run by area residents taking up about half the lot.
It all started when The Enterprise Community Development Corporation (TEC-CDC) decided they wanted to turn the very visible vacant plot into something that would be beneficial to the Walnut Hill community. SEPTA used that vacant piece of land during its reconstruction of the 46th street El stop a few years ago. The lot had been an eyesore in the community since then. The Walnut Hill Street Team, a ten member outreach network, went door to door asking neighbors of the community what they wanted to see in the lot.
“The overwhelming response was a community garden,” said Greg Heller of The Enterprise Community Development Corporation.
After learning what the community wanted to see the vacant lot transformed into, Heller and his team began searching for exactly what resources and what it would take to get a community garden growing in the lot.
That’s when Nic Esposito got involved. Esposito and his partner, Erica Smith, already established community gardens in other areas of the city, so they were the perfect candidates to help TEC-CDC tackle the job.
The project is funded through many different outlets. Much of it is through a lot of grant writing done by the TEC-CDC. So far, the project has received two grants. The first grant is from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. This grant involves no cash. Rather it provides the farm with free soil and seedlings for three years. It’s called the City Harvest Growers Alliance. The second grant was $10,000 in cash from PECO called Green Region.
SEPTA is leasing the property to TEC-CDC for $1. They currently have a 10-year lease on the property with the option to renew twice. Right now, TEC-CDC is looking at 30 years of urban gardening on the plot before they need to reconsider their lease.
The community garden currently has 12 plots, which are all gardened by Walnut Hill residents. The Walnut Hill Community Association is very involved with the community garden and its members volunteer a lot of their time. The hope is to help members of the community connect directly with their food. No chemicals or pesticides are used in the garden, so it creates a safe, sustainable and healthy food alternative for those living in the neighborhood.
“We all work together to better our neighborhoods with different things,” said Jason Custis, Vice President of the Walnut Hill Community Association. “We want to go green.”
Aside from providing the neighborhood with fresh, pesticide-free produce, those involved with the garden are working hard in other ways to make the plot as sustainable as possible. One thing TEC-CDC is trying to do is work with SEPTA to capture rainwater runoff from their elevated station, so it can flow into an on-site tank. Once the water is captured inside the tank, a solar panel pump will enable use of the rainwater as the garden’s source of water.
DeLoris Fisher, treasurer of the Walnut Hill Community Association, has been a resident of Walnut Hill for many years. She loves West Philadelphia and anything that helps her community. She remembers the transformation of Walnut Hill through the years she’s lived there and the vacant lots that consumed a lot of the space.
“If anyone could go back to Walnut Hill 25 years ago and look at Walnut Hill and look
at how it was then and look at how it is now. It’s unbelievable” Fisher said.
There were many ideas tossed around about what the vacant lot on 46th and Market should be turned into. Fisher is happy with the decision to make it a community garden.
“I think it’s great. It’s great for the community. I think it was a great idea. Everybody seemed to be happy with it,” said Fisher. “I’m very happy with it. I’m waiting for my plot, so I can start planting and growing.”
Tolah Oliver lives in Walnut Hill and is part of the street team. He also has one of the 12 garden plots. He enjoys having a plot because he has never grown anything before. Oliver likes the community aspect of the garden because it helps him to help others. He also enjoys it because it gives him a place to go when he doesn’t want to be at home.
It’s not just a peaceful place for Oliver, but also somewhere that truly connects him with the food he eats.
“One of the things I like about growing my own food is the personalization of having your own. You grew it, you know what it’s about and the accomplishment of growing and harvesting” Oliver said. “It’s cost-effective. Seeds and seedlings cost little to nothing and they yield volumes.”
Oliver is growing romaine lettuce and potatoes in his plot and will harvest them in a few weeks.
The community garden is one aspect of the lot. The other part of the lot is an urban farm run entirely by five West Philadelphia High School students. This is set up through Esposito and the City Harvest Growers Alliance grant. The grant provides the seedlings and soil on the condition that the community farm provides a supplemental income for the growers. It provides funding for entrepreneurial growers.
Basically what happens is these five West Philadelphia High students run the farm. They grow lettuce, radishes, herbs and other produce and then they take it to markets to sell. The project has been going on since late March 2010 and the youth have had enough produce to sell to the Milk & Honey Market, located at 45th and Baltimore, every week. The students also started selling at the farmer’s market in Clark Park recently.
According to Esposito, the business is on a cooperative model. It’s the students’ business, they make the decisions and manage the day to day operations.
Dontae Weedon, 18, is a senior at University City High School and one of the students involved with the urban farm. He and the other students grow vegetables hoping to reach out to the community by educating and providing their neighbors with more than just corner store foods, like chips and soda. They want to make it cheaper to buy healthy food.
“We educate people of the neighborhood, make healthier alternatives and have a good time doing it” Weedon said.
The students are still working to make some money through the operation, which is one of its main purposes.
“That our mission and that’s our goal,” Esposito said. “To really secure food access in West Philadelphia and really create sustainable jobs for these youth.”
The project is still early in its development and only takes up about half of the land. Everyone involved is working hard to make this community garden/urban farm a substantial part of not only the Walnut Hill community, but also Philadelphia.
“We want this to become a model for community based urban agriculture not just throughout Philadelphia, but around the country,” Heller said. “Nobody in Philadelphia is doing anything like this yet, but we want other organizations and community development corporations to emulate what we’re doing, so this can become a sustainable citywide model, rather than just one stand alone site.”