It's been 45 years, but Malik Mohammed still remembers the feel of sticky tobacco juice covering his hands at the end of a day working the fields with his parents, who were sharecroppers in Horry County, S. C. When the family moved to 29th and Huntingdon in 1968, his father soon tilled up the backyard to grow peppers and butter beans. Two years later, though, his father left. And the farming tradition that stretched back generations? It was all but forgotten.
Now, that's starting to change. Mohammed is one of an older generation of gardeners in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood with roots in farming communities in the South and in rural New Jersey who hope a recent resurgence in urban gardening will bridge a generational gap to attract their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Some of them have been working plots for decades, and say that the drug crisis in the neighborhood starting in the 1970s nearly extinguished their agricultural traditions. Now, a new community garden in Strawberry Mansion and a helping hand from a few nonprofits and city agencies, has inspired more area residents to get digging.
But many of the people involved with the garden, even those of Mohammed’s generation, have no prior experience growing vegetables.
Carole Moore sits on her porch on the 2200 block of N. Natrona St., pointing out her husband, whom everyone calls North Philly Billy, as he stoops over a garden bed across the street, pruning tomato plants and picking cucumbers. “I never raised anything before in my life, besides my children,” says Moore.
More than a dozen volunteers gathered at the garden at 32nd and Ridge on a Tuesday afternoon for their weekly informal work day. Members of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) and the East Park Revitalization Alliance (EPRA) provide assistance to the novice gardeners.
“I used to roll my four wheelers and dirt bikes through here,” says Markel McCoy, EPRA’s garden coordinator and a resident of the 2200 block of Natrona. The garden, conceived in the winter as a joint project of PhillyRising, PHS, EPRA and the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation (SMCDC), sits on one of three grassy triangular lots on which a hotel and public swimming pool used to stand. For the last 20 years, the lots have been empty.
The 22 raised beds at the north end of the large triangular space were built in late April by PHS and quickly claimed by nearby residents. Nicole Sugerman of EPRA says the garden has another 10 neighbors on a waitlist. EPRA and PHS hope to build 20 more beds, for those residents and for students at Strawberry Mansion High School. PHS also hopes to raise funds for a greenhouse on the lot.
While this garden is new, there are dozens of smaller plots in the neighborhood, some tended consistently for 25 years or more.
Maron Fasion, James Atkins and George Glover, all in their 80s, have been gardening at a large lot on 31st Street between Berks and Norris, for the last 30 years. Fasion’s grandfather farmed in North Carolina and Glover worked on a farm in South Jersey. They hope the neighborhood's younger residents will begin to shoulder more of the gardening work in the neighborhood, but they're doubtful. “Young people are more interested in eating the vegetables than in helping grow them,” Atkins says. They have children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. But out of all of them, only one of Atkins’s grandsons has shown any interest in gardening.
Sugerman is more optimistic. She hopes the young people who are discovering gardening at 32nd and Ridge will eventually help sustain the older gardens that exist scattered throughout the neighborhood.
PhillyRising, a city neighborhood revitalization initiative, helped select the city-owned site for the new garden project. Dan O’Brien of PhillyRising says the initial community outreach for the project coincided with the announcement that Strawberry Mansion High School and LP Hill Elementary School were on the preliminary school closure list in December. Community members who coalesced around saving the schools (Hill closed in the end, but Mansion remains open), stuck together afterwards, and collaborated on the garden.
For Mohammed, a recovering addict who's dedicated to helping out the neighborhood's youth — he once even tried teaching boxing in the park, but that failed after he discovered that dealers were using th punching bags he hung from trees on 33rd Street to stash their drugs —this is a way to give back.
Natrona Street resident Natasha Gateward, sitting on her porch with her son Nahzeem, says that if nothing else, the garden has put food on her table this summer. Gateward cooked a stew the previous night using tomatoes, carrots and greens from the garden. “My son eats all his vegetables,” she says proudly.
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