Point Breeze: The Greening of a Neighborhood

Point Breeze homes don’t typically come with yards. An unbroken line of rowhouse after rowhouse is the dominant motif for several blocks on end, going up and down the compact neighborhood wedged just south of Center City between Washington Avenue and Moore Streets.

Still, the neighborhood boasts plenty of green.

Many gardens, like this one on Bouvier Street incorporate a seating area to encourage neighborhood socializing.
Many gardens, like this one on Bouvier Street incorporate a seating area to encourage neighborhood socializing.

“The philosophy is everything that can happen in the country can happen here in the urban environment,” said Joe Revlock, a decades-long volunteer with the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, s subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. “It’s this idea of making a beautiful place in the city and enjoying its fruits.”

It was that organization that selected Point Breeze as a “Greene Countrie Town” back in the 1980s, taking a page out of William Penn’s original, decidedly more agrarian vision of Philadelphia.

The designation funneled public money and land use legal know-how into turning the neighborhood’s empty, unsightly lots into neighborhood gardens.

“The concept was instead of gardening in many different areas of the city, we’d use gardening and tree planting to make a big impact all in one area,” Eileen Gallagher, a project manager with City Harvest, another PHS program. “It was a real concentrated effort to really make a change within a community.”

Point Breeze doesn’t have the sprawling acres-large growing spaces possible in less dense parts of West Philadelphia and atop the enormous former industrial campuses in North Philly. Instead, the green sprouts up block by block, with most gardens the width of an average row house.

The Trust helped to build around 80 gardens in the gaps left over after rowhouses and corner stores fell into disuse and eventually fell down altogether.

It wasn’t – and still isn’t – as simple as digging up weeds and planting seeds, said Gallagher. Growers must contend with the generally poor soil quality prevalent in urban areas, having to import more fertile soil from else where. There’s also the myriad ownerships associated with seemingly abandoned lots.

The Trust helped communities rally to secure lots and even outright owns seven today. That makes Point Breeze tied with the whole of West Philadelphia for number of NGT gardens.

Growing plots line a garden on Bouvier Street.
Growing plots line a garden on Bouvier Street.

Most are primarily vegetable gardens with some type of flower aspect. But there’s more to them than just plants.

“If you have a community garden you need some common space to sit and enjoy the space,” said Gallagher. “Where people can sit and relax and enjoy all of the food that they produce and socialize as a group.”

Margaret McCarville, president of the trust, explained that every garden has it’s own history.
Some now exist on land formally owned by the city. Others had private owners who simply walked away physically, but not quite legally.

“We’re looking for spots that are going to have a vibrant community presence for many year,” she said. “We’ll take title and get insurance to property.”

McCarville calls these gardens “urban oases” in an increasingly stressful and fast-paced city.

A number of these gardens are considered gems by the Trust. There’s the Keith Haring garden, at 22nd and Ellsworth, that boasts a recent makeover to the namesake mural painted by the famous Haring more than 20 years ago.

Farther west on Bouvier Street, another looks completely out of place – in a good way – amidst the rowhouses and corner stores that surround it. Colorful growing beds and staffs there are neatly arraigned and adorned with plastic hallmarks of spring.

One garden, tucked away on Titan Street, is still coming into it’s own.  Nanette Lankford and her husband have lived right next door for more than 20 years. She said she remembered a local woman would tend to the garden year after year until she ultimately passed away.

Last year, she and her husband noticed the garden could use some sprucing up. The duo repainted the metal fencing and are planning on figuring out just what to plant to try and bring it back to its former glory.

“Places like this show off a community and they also show that the community members actually care,” she said. “It shows that they take pride in where they live.”

McCarvil brings up the dilemma once faced by the Titan Street garden, that is, aging caretakers and the search for the next generation of local green thumbs.

A trend amongst younger professionals to take an interest in gardening, however, gives the trust hope.

As Gallagher explains, early Point Breeze residents – African Americans from the South and immigrants – brought a cultural history of gardening with them to the neighborhood.

The newest residents are urban professionals funneling in from an expanding Center City.

“As Center City changed its boundaries, it has really brought a new younger generation of people who have brought their interest in gardens with them,” she said. “We have a lot of requests to use that are there.”

– Text, video and images by Jad Sleiman and Jessica Griffin


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