At the Rivera Recreation Center at Fifth and Allegheny in Fairhill, a rectangular grassy expanse marks the former site of an Olympic-size swimming pool that was frequently used for citywide competitions. Years of neglect led to cracks in the pool’s retaining wall, spilling water onto Allegheny Avenue in the 1980s. Restoring the pool was considered a funding priority — but the city never quite got the money together. By the 1990s, the pool was filled with trash and even an abandoned automobile. Eventually, it was filled in.
“They had stands and everything, bleachers right there!” says Lorraine Busch, master gardener for Penn State Extension’s Harvest for Health Program. “When I came here, I couldn’t believe the pool was gone. It’s unbelievable. Now we’re putting in a garden.”
This summer, the Department of Parks and Recreation brought together children from the rec center and elders from the nearby Mann Senior Center to run an urban farm on that green space. The effort has been well received in Philadelphia’s largest Hispanic community.
“People come from these agricultural roots and are used to having acres and acres of land for their own personal family garden,” says department facilitator Elisa Ruse-Esposito. “They move to Philadelphia and they don’t have space to grow food. This helps them reconnect to their roots, and I’d say it’s therapeutic, too.”
About 40 community gardens are currently located on city parkland, she estimates. But the intergenerational program in Fairhill represents a new Parks Department initiative, and may be used as a model as the department converts more paved areas at rec centers into green space.
On a sunny Thursday morning, a gaggle of older women from the Mann center were tending to tomato plants in raised beds. Once school let out, children would flood the garden, learning about gardening techniques and nutrition. The women gushed about the wonderful growing season they’d had together. Lucy Gomez had brought her own plants to contribute to a new row of raised beds, proudly displaying oregano brujo, “witch’s oregano,” a staple in Puerto Rican cooking.
“I put it with the garlic, if you’re going to make beans or a chicken dish,” she said.
But all around this newly built oasis, the department’s legacy of underfunding remains. The chipping paint on the adjacent jungle gym and Rivera’s grimy, Cold-War-era building make it clear that farming can only do so much to transform the city’s neglected public facilities.
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