If you’re not careful, you might miss it. Nestled on the 2800 block of West Diamond Street between two identical three-story homes with just a small black-and-white sign, the Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center is anything but inconspicuous. For the neighborhood’s residents whose view of abandoned buildings, overgrown weeds and trash piles are permanently seared into their minds, this organization provides some much needed solace.
Through a series of partnerships with the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, which helped the Strawberry Mansion NAC produce parcels of land, The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Community LandCare program, which employs service organizations to clean and mow lots on a monthly basis and various farming initiatives that support the area’s seniors who taking care of community gardens, there is one group of individuals that is notably absent from this partnership: youth.
“What we would like to see is more of our youth supporting our seniors with these community gardens,” said Tyrone Williams, community liasion for the Strawberry Neighborhood Action Center. “Most of these seniors have been doing this for a while. They do it because it gives them something to do. Some of them may be retired and some of them love to see beautiful things,” he added.
Tonnetta Graham, president of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp., which partners with the Strawberry Mansion NAC on certain initiatives said, “I’ve got to commend our seniors because they’ve been very dedicated.”
Graham noted, though, that many seniors are no longer able to take care of community gardens such as one parcel of land on 29th and Gordon streets, which deteriorated after an elderly man became ill and was taken to a nursing home.
George Glover, an 86-year-old who tends to one community garden in the neighborhood, said, “Young people don’t know anything about this and they don’t care.” Glover noted that today the youth have many food options and that can deter them from wanting to garden. “When I was coming up, you [ate] what was on the table,” he added.
Graham explained that education may be the key to engaging young people in community gardening. “I think if young people understood [that] it costs way less to grow your own potatoes than to get potatoes from the store. It’s not like this is a huge task. You can learn how to do that. So I think it’s just cultivating that interest and letting them know how important it is to see how strategic it can be in a community,” she said.
Technology can also be used to generate their interest in farming. Young people can play computer games like FarmVille in which the objective is to manage a farm by plowing and harvesting crops. In this way, they can understand the process of farm management on the computer screen before seeing how it’s actually done. “We just have to be more creative in getting them engaged,” Graham said.
Seniors are also afraid to approach young people for help as a result of the stories they hear about violence in the community. Although Graham acknowledged that some young people do need guidance she said, “[Seniors would] be amazed about how some of the young people love to have them talk to them and teach them and take them under their wing,” Graham said. “That generational gap needs to be filled in.”
Perhaps the greatest benefit of youth participating in greening and beautification programs is building entrepreneurial skills. “Some of these young men and women could become entrepreneurs, start their own businesses. I know people take lawn mowers and go out and make a little money. It’s little things that can help with at-risk youth if we make them available,” said Williams. This informal initiative is made easier by the partnership between Strawberry Mansion NAC and the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp. because they lend weed wackers and lawn mowers to residents eager to beautify the community. “The worst thing is to have a child who really wants to do, but has no chance to do it,” Graham said.
Terrell McCullough, a 22-year-old resident of Strawberry Mansion doesn’t agree. “I don’t feel as though helping your community and you trying to be an entrepreneur should be the same thing because (as an entrepreneur), you’re making money and you helping community, that’s supposed to be nonprofit,” he said.
Along with Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center’s Executive Director Lenora Jackson-Evans, Williams said he believes that community greening and beautification is a mindset.
“If you clean up their neighborhoods, sometimes people clean up their act. You see repeatedly abandoned houses (and) weeds. That is a depressing site within itself and I believe it plays on the mental psyche,” he said.