Kingsessing: Bartram’s Garden Serves Community For Centuries

In Southwest Philadelphia is something beautifully unexpected: the nation’s oldest surviving botanic garden.

Bartram’s Garden is a 45-acre national landmark and public space, sprawling along the Schuylkill River in the Kingsessing neighborhood.

The Garden is owned by the city but is operated by the John Bartram Association, a nonprofit and namesake of the founder’s historic garden. Because of this, Bartram’s Garden offers educational opportunities and services to residents of the nearby community.

The Garden’s direct neighbor, Bartram Village, will undergo massive redevelopment in the next few years. Bartram Village is a public housing complex, owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which is along the driveway to the Garden. It was built in 1942 and has seen little improvements since.

That’s where Maitreyi Roy comes in. Roy is the executive director of Bartram’s Garden. She’s a former Eisenhower Fellow and had earlier led the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society as senior vice president for programs. The Garden and the surrounding community have faced adversity caused by changing dynamics. With upcoming projects for redeveloping the nearby community, Roy wants to ensure community residents’ voices are heard and the Garden remains a resource to them.

What is the story of the founding of Bartram’s Garden?

This is a public space and it has a really wonderful history of being a place here. In the early 1700s, the Bartram family settled here and was largely farming this community. The Bartrams were also plant collectors, sort of naturalists. They were collecting plants from all over North America. They traveled by boat and on horseback as far up as Nova Scotia, as far south as Florida and collected plants from all over the continent.

At that time there was this great curiosity about this new nation that was forming and their business essentially was based on these collections they had brought back to this garden. They propagated them here for commercial use. That was sort of the plant industry at a global level. They did a lot of propagation, experimentation with different plants and became very quickly known in largely Europe and other parts of the world as the go-to for anything horticultural from this nation that was forming.

There was a lot of curiosity about this land, what it looked like, what was growing here, what animals were here. The Bartram family collected a lot of really great information but they were also able to share actual plants to the rest of the world. John Bartram was actually appointed the royal botanist to King George as part of this and was very close to Ben Franklin. He and Ben Franklin had founded the American Philosophical Society together and they had a shared love for plants. They have lots of letters that go back between the two men about plants they are curious about, have propagated, what they’re learning and so on.

How did it become a public space for Philadelphians? And what challenges has it faced since?

This garden, in the late 1800s, had been held in private hands until then, largely with the Bartram family. Then in 1893, it was turned over to the city of Philadelphia to become permanently preserved as green space. At the same time, descendants of the Bartram’s formed the John Bartram Association, which is the nonprofit I work for, to continue the legacy and connect people to nature in this place.

The thing that changed dramatically in this community was that the land that was largely agricultural, became industrialized. In the 1800s industry really took over as the main use of land in this community. It was very much a thriving base of industry, with jobs and so on. Also, residential pockets where people worked and lived were throughout this community, manufacturing — multitudes of things — were present. The community suffered greatly in the mid-1900s when industry just sort of left here and moved either to the suburbs or to other parts of the world because labor was cheaper. It really hollowed out this neighborhood in a big way. The garden at that time struggled a great deal around its own survival. We sort of held on as, people in the community viewed it as a private estate. It was like a place to go to if you’re interested in plants.

What is happening now in the nearby community and at the Garden?

The demographic in this community changed dramatically [after industry left]. It became largely an African-American base with one of the strongest growing new immigrant populations. There are immigrants from West Africa, mainly, from places like Cambodia and Vietnam sort of mixed in with really strong core group of African-Americans who have lived here for a long time. So this is an emerging destination neighborhood for new immigrants in recent years, not just in Philadelphia but actually nationally. It’s one of the fastest growing communities.

In the midst of all of this, this is a part of the city that hasn’t seen much community and economic development strategies emerging here and land is available because previously industrial land now is lying vacant in a lot of places. So there have been some planning efforts to create sort of master plans for the neighborhood. [The Bartram Village Philadelphia Housing Authority public housing development] is housing that was built in the 1940s that was, at that time, only meant to last a few years. It was an army barracks but has since then become rental housing for PHA. These are our most immediate community base of residents. They’re right here, we’re like their front door. But they’ve had no relationship with the Garden until recent years. We’ve, in the last five to six years, really grown our programming and our education offerings so that people from our immediate neighborhood can participate in the garden.

When PHA announced that they had just received a planning grant for re-imagining this entire development, its brought up all sorts of emotional responses.

There’s worry and fear of being pushed out. There’s some excitement because these homes are in very poor conditions, so there’s excitement there might be better offerings for people to have in the future that would be better accommodations than what they have. Community residents that are in this neighborhood but not directly in this housing have excitement about maybe mixed housing and changing potential for new retail, new services and things like that but are also worried their taxes may go up and they won’t be able to afford to live here.

In facing this possibility of this new redevelopment, there are mixed feelings on its impact on the community. There are some people that want change and positive change but would like to have their voices represented in the community and have community-led process for re-imagining this public housing site so there’s a lot of interest in engagement and making sure that the right parties are giving shape to the dialogue around what should happen in this community.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

-Text and image by Gillian McGoldrick.

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