East Mt. Airy: Neighbors Work Together to Get Community Garden Off the Ground

Joseph Johnson discusses community garden plans with a group of volunteers.

A proposed community garden for Pleasant Playground, located at 6757 Chew Ave., is closer to becoming a reality. Organizers have been working on creating drafts of the proposed garden and hosting meetings to handle the logistics and prepare their application to City of Philadelphia.  

The garden’s lead organizer, Joseph Johnson, hopes building can begin by August or September at the latest, but said that there’s the possibility they could start sooner.

“We’re so close to completing the application through the city, so we’ll be discussing shortly a timeframe for when we really want to start getting this in the process of being built,” Johnson said. “If I had to guess right now, I would say June or July timeframe, if we have the funds raised.”

For Johnson, building a community garden is important to him because of his memories of growing up in the area.

“I grew up here,” said Johnson. “This is my safe-haven, this park here. I played basketball, football, baseball, everything here, so I always wanted to give back.”

Residents began organizing around a community garden at the playground in early spring 2017. Johnson was the main force pushing for the garden, but the project stalled after he had to leave for a six-week trip abroad for work. Still, he never gave up on the idea of a garden, and since February has been organizing planning meetings in the community building at Pleasant Playground every second and fourth Saturday of the month.

Russ Hilliard, who lives nearby, said that he would welcome the garden.

“I think it would be good for those who want to grow food or plants,” Hilliard said. “I’ve wanted to grow food, but unless you have a yard or are willing to travel, you really can’t in this area.”

His biggest concern, though, is the accessibility, stating that he hopes it’s affordable for all to be able to get a plot in the garden and not something that is restricted to not include those who don’t have a lot of money.

The organizers are currently aiming to have each plot cost $25 for the year to rent to residents of the community.

“I moved back here two years ago, and I had just gotten into urban farming,” he said. “I had attended the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems out in California. I did a six month apprenticeship learning organic farming practices and part of that was that they wanted to know what we would do with what we learned.”

The proposed area for the garden is about 8,625 square feet, roughly about a ninth of the total space at the playground. It would be located in the back corner where the old playground building was located, a space that is currently just open grass.

An open back corner of Pleasant Playground is the proposed spot for a new community garden.

Johnson said that the organizers are now about 80 percent done with the city’s application for a community garden, but that they need to find a core group of volunteers to run the garden. For a community garden to be approved, Department of Parks and Recreation policies stipulate that at least five volunteers must each commit a few hours a week to maintain the area.

At a recent meeting on April 13, organizers gauged interest for site leadership roles, which would include responsibilities like orienting new gardeners, dealing with any disputes within the garden, coordinating social activities, and helping with any other needs that garden members may have.

One concern from the organizers is getting water to the proposed site. Johnson said that they are waiting for a survey of the grounds there to be completed before making a final decision.

“We are currently awaiting the results of the grounds survey that was conducted on the proposed garden site to determine if the plumbing that was in place there to service the old rec center, previously located on said site, is still serviceable,” said Johnson. “If it is, the plan is to tap into the existing plumbing on site to provide water to the garden area.”

If they can’t get water from the existing plumbing, Johnson said that the plan would then be to run lines from the new community center across the playground to the site, but that the preferred way is if they can just get water from the lines that ran to the old center.

Community support for the garden has been good so far.

“It’s something new in this community,” said Doris Jackson, a Mt. Airy resident. “I’m always open to new things coming into this area, as long as it’s to make the area better and this seems to be trying to do that.”

Johnson said that the only pushback was from one resident who suggested that there may be other things that Pleasant Playground needs before a garden.

Organizers have an online petition to get support for the project, which currently has 195 signatures. They ask that those who sign leave their address so that the Department of Parks and Recreation can determine the level of support from the community.

Leonard Allen, a Mt. Airy resident who lives near Pleasant Playground, voiced his support for the project.

“This is the first I’m hearing about it, but I think it sounds great,” said Allen, 63. “I would consider getting a spot there because I love fresh produce and it would nice to be able to grow on my own.”

Allen said that being in an urban setting can be problematic when trying to find open areas to garden. There are not many community gardens in Northwest Philadelphia, so some residents have no choice but to stick to store-bought produce, he said.

There are many benefits to community gardens, according to Jennifer Greenberg, the executive director of Neighborhood Gardens Trust, a group dedicated to preserving land for community garden use.

“There’s good research to how more green spaces can serve benefits to help build social connections, provide a source for healthy, affordable foods, and there’s also many environmental benefits such as filtering water runoff,” said Greenberg. “Green spaces can also help with reducing violence.”

The one concern that Allen has for the project is funding.

“I would say that the only thing that concerns me is how they’ll pay for it,” said Allen. “It can’t be cheap, so I guess my only question is how they are going to pay for everything.”

The Department of Parks and Recreation will not help pay for the community garden, and neither will Pleasant Playground, whose advisory council has given support for the project. This leaves fundraising entirely up to the small group of organizers.

Proposed plans include 48 planting beds, four small picnic tables, new shade trees, water hookups, and space for mulch and compost.

They will need funds to pay for wood to build the raised beds, compost and soil, garden tools and other necessities. Johnson said that there a few ways to raise money, but wants to wait until they are 100 percent done with the application and get approval from the city before asking people for money.

“We have two avenues – there’s grants in the city that we can apply for and the other is just fundraising,” said Johnson.

He hopes that the support they’ve gotten from community members turns into financial support, because most of the money for this will have to come from donations, according to Johnson.

“We’re going to need about $10,000,” said Johnson. “It’s a lot, but I think that if people are really committed to this, we’ll find the money.”

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com

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