Garden of dispute

With all the problems in the world, and especially in our fair city, you might think that Andrew Rosenberg's garden might not amount to more than a bunch of weeds.

But here, you would be wrong.

I met Rosenberg, a retired equipment salesman disabled with spinal stenosis, at the Office of Administrative Review. He was there to fight three tickets, two for violating Section PM-302.3 of the Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code.

That ordinance states that it's unlawful to have weeds or grass exceed 10 inches in height. It's enforced by not one but three city departments - L&I, Streets, and, in a city of 295 murders this year, the police. When a police spokeswoman was asked about weed enforcement, imagine her joy. Sighing ensued.

Except Rosenberg didn't have weeds, but prized heirloom plants - sunflowers, heritage raspberries, roses, herbs - lovingly installed by neighbor Sally Siddiqi, an honored landscape architect who created the West Mount Airy garden four years ago, along with neighbor Victoria Frain, as a gift to the community.

Siddiqi tended the garden, spending a few thousand dollars on plants, until this summer, when she broke her arms and Frain was caring for an ailing relative. The small corner plot became overgrown and unattended.

Let your garden grow

"This is the classic kind of ridiculous story. There are so many vacant spaces in the city, but we build a community garden and get tickets from the city," says Siddiqi. She took a day off from her Manhattan job to fight City Hall with Rosenberg. The irony is that "community gardens are there to stop crime and bring neighborhoods together."

Except this garden became the crime and failed to bring the neighborhood together. Someone complained. The Streets official issuing Rosenberg the ticket said, "It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease."

Rosenberg was fortunate in that he was assigned Shawn Murphy as hearing master. A most compassionate fellow, Murphy is a product of Mayfair, son of an ironworker and a junkie mother. He used to be a marketing analyst at Goldman Sachs, where he advised clients with accounts of $25 million or more. Then he returned to "do something good for the city, and give something back."

Murphy hears cases on spitting, public urination, smoking violations, trash, dog waste. "It's a lot of everyday life," he says. "I wish the mayor could spend a few hours here."

Established in 1995, the hearing office last year handled 10,000 appeals of 85,000 violations. "Most of these disputes are quality-of-life issues," executive director Paula Weiss says, including the matter of a disruptive goat in the Northeast.

Greene Country Towne

Of all the commandments, "Love thy neighbor" may be the most challenging, especially when houses are small and attached, and tensions run high. Rosenberg has a next-door neighbor, Barbara Pearson. It would be fair to say the two don't get along. As in many neighbor disputes, dogs are involved.

"The guy is impossible. The guy is nasty. I phoned about the dog waste and he got caught with the weeds," she says. "He just doesn't take care of his property. The weeds are growing everywhere."

In a matter of minutes, Murphy dismissed the two tickets from the Streets department, one for the "weeds," another for Rosenberg's leaving dog waste in plastic bags on his property. Rosenberg says he was too incapacitated to reach the trash can. Murphy couldn't do anything about the other weed violation, which L&I issued on a different day and hadn't come through the system. Perhaps they will all meet again.

Curious, Murphy asked for pictures of the garden.

Alas, Rosenberg had none.

After the violations were issued, the community garden was torn up. It just seemed easier to do.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or