Fred Lorenzen, a long-time volunteer gardener, stands alone in the middle of several box planters looking at the literal fruits of his neighbor’s labors. This season’s crops, everything from lettuce to elderberries, are budding out of the soil. The community garden, La Esquina, is at the corner of Jefferson and 5th streets, sheltered by a black metal fence. Surrounding it are the rowhomes, antiquated and new, of Olde Kensington.
Lorenzen has been gardening in Olde Kensington since he moved here in 2014. In the seven years since then, he’s seen the far-reaching impact that a community garden can have on a neighborhood. “What it is, is really being able to plant roots,” he tells me, with a black mask covering his face. “When you’re trying to get accustomed to a new neighborhood, meet your neighbors, there’s no way better way to do it than to get your hands dirty and really garden and partner with people. And if you get some tasty veggies out of it, it’s even better.”
Lorenzen is one of the founding directors and now-treasurer of Olde and South Kensington Green, a non-profit more colloquially known as OSK Green to its neighbors, that aims to protect and preserve green spaces in the Kensington area, including La Esquina. South Kensington’s residents have been rooting themselves in this garden, cultivating next to each other, since it opened in 2019. But the coronavirus’s restrictions have left the gardeners growing away from each other, instead of side-by-side sharing clippers and trowels. It’s just one of the hundreds of community gardens in Philadelphia that had to find ways to adapt to the new normal, while leaders like Lorenzen have stepped up to face a new and unprecedented challenge to keep neighbors connected.
Before the pandemic forced community gardens and farms to scale back and distance themselves, gardeners were flowing in and out of the gates, gardens would host workshops on weekend mornings, teaching their growers the ins and outs of growing spring vegetables or how to start compost bins at home. Now, gardeners are kneeled over their plots six feet away from each other with masks covering their faces.
In the first two weeks of the pandemic, Shannon Matthews, the Farm and Program Manager at Cloud 9 Community Farms, took each day at a time, just focusing on maintaining the gardens. Matthews remembers how Cloud 9’s gates used to be open to the public, with residents picking veggies and chatting on benches but now it’s not so often that she’ll see a few kids walk in to pick a few peppers or a senior picking a tomato or two and leaving while she tends to the garden herself.
Cloud 9 Community Farms has a handful of spaces across the city, reaching residents from North Philly to West Philly. Their mission goes beyond just gardening; they also work to educate their neighbors. Throughout previous seasons, residents would gather at Cloud 9’s gardens to attend workshops on learning growing techniques and even cooking. On summer mornings before the pandemic, Philadelphia’s youth would meet up at Cloud 9’s gardens for summer internships. But Cloud 9 put all of these programs on hold to do what was the most vital: getting food to residents. “It kind of shifted our focus to just kind of grow as much food as we can and figuring out ways to get it to the surrounding community more,” Matthews says.
Cloud 9 Community Farms also has gardens in places like the Kirkbride Rehabilitation Center in West Philadelphia as a way to provide an outlet for the residents while teaching them about agriculture. Since the pandemic started, Cloud 9 hasn’t been allowed through the gates but Kirkbride’s patients can still use the space to get together, read a book, and connect with nature.
Danyell Brent, one of Cloud 9’s Farm Coordinators and the spearhead of the program at Kirkbride, works with the gardeners here to learn not only how to grow food, but also work on their mental health, he says. “I miss the people because we did make a difference,” he says. “We make a very big difference. They look forward to us coming and we look forward to being there.”
Across the city at OSK Green’s spaces, growers defy the typical community garden model of buying their own plots and tending to them alone. Here, volunteers work harmoniously with trowels in hand and collectively contribute to the space. While they haven’t ventured into educational programming during the pandemic as Cloud 9 has yet, OSK Green’s president John Williams says this cooperative growing model is what’s keeping these gardeners connected.
“The connection was more on an individual level with your neighbors who saw organization and space, particularly La Esquina, as a kind of resource, a way for them to escape out of their homes, and to do something constructive and productive in a ‘communal space’,” he says. “Even if they necessarily weren’t with other people it was still recognized as being kind of a shared resource…They know that others are benefiting from that and there’s some gratification from that.”
Any events that OSK Green had in mind to start were canceled until further notice. But as COVID-cabin-fever might make residents anxious to get out of their homes, Williams aspires to give more interested growers a safe place to connect for the upcoming seasons. “People might have energy and want to reconnect with other humans,” Williams hopes. “And we’re looking to capitalize on that and offer a venue for that engagement.”
Brent has a different outlook on the pandemic himself. For him, 2020 was bittersweet. Despite the unprecedented challenges that gardeners have been faced with since early last year, Brent has still been able to foster Cloud 9’s mission of feeding their neighbors, who he says are hungry for both food and information. “I’ve made more connections with more people than when I first started,” he says.
Brent, who works with a handful of other gardens and programs across the city, has been driving around the city, delivering food to his neighbors himself ever since the pandemic started. “We just look out for each other,” Brent says. “Your neighbor is your first line of defense.”
Urban farms and gardens have become a staple resource to communities across the city, but these gardens have been dwindling more and more over the years. There were about 501 spaces that grew food– and hundreds more that grew other greenery– in 1996, which was cut down by over half down to 226 by 2008, according to the 2008 Harvest Report done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Craig Borowiak, an associate professor at Haverford College, did another study and found that there were about 413 community gardens and farms in the city by 2019.
These spaces don’t only provide fresh food for residents to pick off of vines to share on their dinner tables or with their neighbors–2,037,143 pounds in the summer of 2008 alone, in fact–but also a place for them to foster community, Williams says. Losing these spaces isn’t just the loss of a garden or a Sunday morning activity, it’s also the loss of a significant resource for its residents. “I think that notion of community, especially in deprived communities, has been a real important part of people’s lives,” he said.
Even though residents rely on these spaces for fresh food and connections with their fellow gardeners, many have been struggling to keep their gates open before the pandemic even started.
OSK Green itself had a bumpy start from its inception, born out of a court case starting in 2016, which closed its parent farm, La Finquita, after almost 30 years. Before bringing it to the courthouse steps, the farm once sat on the corner of Master and Lawrence streets in South Kensington, growing food and flowers by local neighbors to bring food into the neighborhood since 1988. Now, it’s become another vacant plot of land in the city, currently being gutted by bulldozers, pulling up the remnants of years of work for new townhomes.
In its days, La Finquita, started in the late 1980s by the non-profit organization the Catholic Worker, sold food at cost to local community members on Sunday mornings and used any surplus produce in their soup kitchen. The farm sat on top of where the old Pyramid Tire & Rubber factory once did until the late 1970s, leaving the farm’s coordinators searching for the owners and deed to the property to ultimately get ownership of the land to secure it as their own. But developers had the same idea, bringing them into a lawsuit. The group ultimately settled in 2018, using the monetary settlement to reinvest in the neighborhood, kickstarting OSK Green’s launch. Now, bulldozers are digging up where neighbors once planted irises around fruits and veggies, pulling up the roots sewn by Kensington’s neighbors and old tires from the factory before.
Almost a block away, the Catholic Worker donated two parcels of land along with their deeds to OSK Green so they could get right to work on rebuilding their spaces, and the settlement left OSK with enough seed money to obtain the resources they needed.
“That gives people a lot of comfort in that there’s not going to be a day where a developer shows up to just take the space away from them,” Lorenzen says.
La Finquita was a staple in the community where residents would come to grow food beside each other, connecting with the rest of the neighborhood. After losing La Finquita, Lorenzen, along with a few other members from La Finquita, started OSK Green to not only keep serving the neighborhood but help prevent other spaces from being lost. For them, establishing a green space was essential to the community.
“It was the obvious choice in that, you know, we’re looking to essentially bring resources and giving back to the community,” Williams says. “Ultimately we want to be a resource for everyone, for the people who stay a long time, and have been here a long time, and the people that are new to the area.”
Once La Finquita was officially gone, growers and residents were trepidatious, wondering when they will get to grow together again. The founding team established OSK Green with being a non-profit in mind, allowing them access to resources and funding but keeping their green spaces green, giving their neighbors the surety they need, Lorenzen says.
“What we’re trying to do is give volunteers safety and security so whatever they’re working on is not going to get taken away,” Lorenzen says. “If they have a green space in their neighborhood that they want to see more of, it’s not gonna get taken away by a developer, by the city who wants somebody else involved, or anything like that.”
OSK had several other options to rebuild their spaces across the city, but the organization wanted to keep their next set of spaces in the area- so they opened up their first garden space, La Esquina, not even a block away.
Williams has seen a whirlwind of development since he moved into South Kensington almost ten years ago, witnessing the loss of green space alongside that. Oftentimes, community gardens are started informally by a few residents just wanting to plant vegetables for the summer on vacant plots of land together without a full organization. These are the spaces you see go most often, Williams says. “When somebody comes along and just bulldozes over raised beds, there’s no voice that gets heard when that happens,” Williams says. “It’s just probably a few people that lost their efforts.”
There are hopes for these spaces, however.
The Neighborhood Gardens Trust has been a protector of these spaces since the late 1980s, protecting over 50 spaces since then. NGT focuses on land conservation for community-managed gardens by working alongside them to secure ownership or long-term leases for their land. “In most cases, what happens is residents have come together to essentially transform vacant and abandoned land that exists in their neighborhood into a community asset and into a place where they can have a green space, a social gathering space, a place to grow fresh food,” Jenny Greenberg, the executive director of the NGT said. “But very often they don’t have legal land access or site controls for the land that they’re caring for.”
As real estate pressures increase and developers continue to roll into the city, adding new townhomes or apartment complexes, more and more gardens are being lost, Greenberg worries. NGT has been working tirelessly to scale its preservation efforts even further to keep as many gardens open as possible.
But development isn’t necessarily the “boogeyman” most people make it out to seem, Lorenzen points out. With a housing crisis that continues to haunt the city, residents need homes and the city needs to have better conversations on how to best serve these spaces. “For every vacant property that sits in North Philadelphia and in these neighborhoods, there’s people that need space like that and neighbors that do not want to see it either just sit and waste, but they want to see somebody get the green light to like go do something productive,” he says. “That might be development, it might not be. It might be something somebody else has a better idea on what to do with that that would benefit the community, not just a developer.”
Photos by Allie Ippolito