Planting a revolution, one vegetable garden at a time

Robyn Mello, Philadelphia OrchardProject education and outreach director, picks black raspberries in a Fairhill community garden. (Michael Pronzato/Staff Photographer)

IT WAS 2011. Outside City Hall were rows of tents where many flavors of political persuasion could be found - anarchists, communists, Democratic socialists, libertarians.

This was Occupy Philadelphia, or, as Dusty Hinz remembers it, a "great coming-out party for the general left." Amid the monthslong protests, a splinter group of twentysomethings formed with a plan to sustain the protests' energy in a way that would bring real change to city neighborhoods.

Dubbed Occupy Vacant Lots, the group of guerrilla gardeners squatted on dozens of vacant, garbage-strewn properties. Hinz was one of those gardeners; now he's a volunteer for Peace Park, a community garden in North Philadelphia. Some of his fellow guerrillas believed they were making a political statement by being there illegally - staking it to the man, so to speak.

But for Robyn Mello, it was about the food: to show communities where stores with fresh produce are in short supply that once you put down the roots, opportunities can grow in green abundance.

"Saying we can grow enough food within the city limits to feed city residents is, at least from what I can see, not a reasonable thing to say at this point," said Mello, who now works for the Philadelphia Orchard Project, an organization that helps plant trees in the city. "But I think you can influence people to think about where their food comes from and that, in itself, is enough to change the entire food system."

A deeply rooted stake

Guerrilla gardeners have been going against the grain since the 1970s, skulking out in the night to garden-bomb cement medians with dirt and flowers, said Skip Weiner, founder of Urban Tree Connection, which builds community gardens in low-income Philadelphia neighborhoods.

"Guerrilla gardeners are f--- you people," Weiner said. "They were trying to say that concrete sucks and they were gonna do flowers instead of concrete regardless of what the city wanted."

Gardens are only as successful as communities make them, though, so guerrilla gardeners need neighborhood support, Weiner said. Problems arise when they come into neighborhoods where they aren't necessarily wanted.

"I'm very concerned about the fact that they understand how to share that whole dynamic with the community and not just do it for themselves in terms of saving the world," Weiner said. "Original guerrilla gardeners just threw the seed bombs and went away."

Weiner, 74, was once a guerrilla gardener. About 15 years ago, he began developing gardens on vacant land in West Philadelphia. One of those lots, on 52nd Street and Wyalusing Avenue, in the Haddington neighborhood, is just a few blocks from where he grew up.

When Weiner first discovered the land, it was a typical abandoned lot - soil contaminated with gallons of oil, condoms and dime bags hidden in the weeds, a thriving open-air drug market. Now it's one of Urban Tree Connection's 29 community gardens.

Weiner mostly squats on land, but community members claim their own garden beds and grow what they want.

The mainstream urban agriculture community claims that guerrilla gardening has mostly become a buzzword, a far cry from the days when it was hip to be hostile. The preferred term is community gardening, which may begin with guerrilla-inspired squatting but has an end goal of legal ownership.

Proliferation & preservation

There's little land security in most community gardens. Of the 800-plus recorded community gardens in Philadelphia, the vast majority lack land tenure, said Amy Laura Cahn, director of the Garden Justice Legal Initiative, which provides legal support to community gardens.

There's a laundry list of pathways for community gardens to get legal ownership, but each garden comes with its own issues. Of the city's 44,000 vacant lots, only about 20 percent are owned by the city, said Kirtrina Baxter, a community organizer with the Garden Justice Legal Initiative.

That leaves about 32,500 lots where the legal owner could be an absentee landlord, deceased, an estranged corporation or a defunct corporation, Baxter said.

The Philadelphia Land Bank, approved by City Council last year, should speed up the process of getting vacant land back into productive use and ownership. But it's still in the planning stages. Meanwhile, Baxter said, many community gardens are fighting legal battles with little confirmation that their gardens will be around next year.

The Land Bank would be able to erase a property's debt. But without that resource, many plots are priced out of gardeners' reach, said Mary Ward-Bucher, founder of the Hicks Street Community Garden, in South Philadelphia.

In 2007, in the ashes of a demolished rowhouse, Ward-Bucher and a group of volunteers planted flowers and herbs. Soon after, they learned that the land was for sale. The price tag was $17,400.

Fortunately, one of Ward-Bucher's friends wrote her a check and eventually forgave the debt.

"It's challenging to come up with the cash and keep the developers at bay," Ward-Bucher said of the lot, which was donated to the city's Neighborhood Gardens Trust. "We were one of the lucky ones."

Before the Hicks Street Garden, Ward-Bucher said, there were at least 10 vacant houses on the block. Since then, the street has changed for the better.

"I would say about half of those have been bought up or are in the process of getting fixed up," she said. "Including one that's almost right across the street from the garden."

It's far from the excitement of the Occupy Movement, but Mello said she's "obsessed" with a tamer cause - helping people get their hands dirty.

"For me, growing food is a human need and a human right," Mello said. "It has the potential to be a very revolutionary act . . . as long as there are vacant lots, and as long as there are hungry people, there will be people who are using vacant lots as a radical platform."