Donna Bradley never thought she could grow food in her own neighborhood.
About two and a half years ago, Bradley started to crave a more environmentally friendly way to spend her time — she wanted to grow her own food and show other people how to do it, too. She didn’t think she could find a place to do that near her home in North Philadelphia beyond a few potted plants in her backyard.
That’s when Bradley found the North Philadelphia Peace Park. Located on Jefferson Street near 24th in the heart of Sharswood — and about five blocks from Bradley’s home — the park opened in February 2012 to give neighborhood residents a place to learn about agriculture and grow their own food within their community.
“The park offers the community an experience, the experience to say, ‘Wow, this is a place where I might just want to go sit, maybe go over and get some food,’” Bradley said. “It offers an opportunity for people to experience more greens.”
Pili X, the park’s director of community partnerships, co-founded the North Philly Peace Park to help alleviate what he thinks are Sharswood’s most pressing problems: poor public education and employment and food insecurity.
“All those things are why we originally started the Peace Park six years ago,” X said. “We’re not going to be able to solve all these issues and answer all these problems overnight, or just within a few years, but to begin to add some relief to people.”
Now, the North Philly Peace Park staff members are working to further develop the space: they’re aiming to build a three-room schoolhouse on-site at the park by summer 2018. The building will host after-school and summer programs for Sharswood children to learn about agriculture, architecture and design.
The park is centered around weekly Work Parties, which North Philly Peace Park staff hosts every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. During that time, community residents are invited to help staff members harvest seasonal fruits and vegetables.
After the harvest, the North Philly Peace Park staff gives away the fruits and vegetables to Sharswood residents free of charge. They’ll usually put the week’s haul on a table outside the park and invite community residents to take whatever they want. Sometimes, they’ll deliver the fresh produce to elderly neighbors in the area who can’t make it to the park on their own.
Maya Thomas, the park’s project manager, said the Work Parties are the most popular point of entry for volunteering for the park. Depending on the weather, anywhere from three to 20 community residents will show up every Sunday to help out.
Thomas estimates about 150 people attend North Philly Peace Park’s most popular event: a community family day held every summer.
“There are just so many people coming here and giving,” Thomas said. “The people that live here are welcoming it.”
For Thomas, North Philly Peace Park isn’t just about food — it’s also about neighborhood development.
“What the Sharswood community is actually facing, what they’ve already faced, is a complete renewal of somebody else’s idea of what this community should look like,” Thomas said. “These are just regular people that are doing this, that are trying to do better for their community.”
“Anyone who is affected by gentrification, having a public space that meets their needs at the lowest level is a more welcoming way to do development and think about public spaces,” Thomas added. “It’s a theory, an idea, but we’re doing it in practice to see what happens. I think it’s going to work.”
Since Bradley first started volunteering nearly three years ago, she’s gotten more involved with the park. Now, she’s working with the staff to develop her own programming to help mothers and children learn more about farming.
“I want to have a portion of the park blocked off for women and children to create moments of regeneration, to create a tranquil situation,” Bradley said. “The goal of this space is they can come here and learn something new, that there’s so much they can do with a tomato.”
“We’re growing people as well,” she added, “not just food.”
Text, images and video by Michaela Winberg.