This Garden is a Town: Shaping the Community Garden

This garden is a town, we have everything but a penal colony,” said Hayward Ford, President of Aspen Farm Community Garden. Ford’s statement reflects a basic idea which guided our work: community gardens are a model for neighborhood-based planning. They are microcosms of community that contain many lessons for designing neighborhoods and cities A community garden is often a first step in community development and an important training ground for future leaders.

Dozens of community gardens were designed and built between 1987- 1991 as part of the West Philadelphia Landscape Plan and Greening Project, including three of those described below.

The report highlights eight community gardens, selected for their diversity in terms of how they were formed, how they operate, and how they look, to provide a glimpse of what different places such gardens can be. The gardens range from a tiny, intricate garden to a huge, amorphous one, from ones tended by one or two individuals to others where over fifty people garden. Community gardens embody the values of those who plant and end them, thereby creating a variety of physical forms and organizational structures; yet certain elements and motivations are common to all.

Community development, environmental restoration, and educational reform must go hand in hand.
We seek partnerships among advocates for each in order to combine forces and resources. We believe that youth have a crucial role to play in this process. This conviction comes from three decades of work in low-income communities on projects that simultaneously address issues of poverty, race, deteriorated neighborhoods, polluted water, and troubled schools.
West Philadelphia Landscape Project
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Pennsgrove Community Garden
WPLP helped lead the construction of the Pennsgrove Community Garden, as part of the West Philadelphia Landscape Plan and Greening Project. The report, "This Garden is a Town," describes Pennsgrove and other community gardens. The story below, written in 1997, introduces Pennsgrove and the volunteers who made the garden a reality.

Pennsgrove Community Garden

From “This Garden is a Town,” 1990

On a hot, June day in 1988, residents of Pennsgrove Street, Landscape Architecture students from the University of Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia Green staff all pitched in to construct a new community garden on the corner of Pennsgrove and Holly Streets. They staked out the future paths with string, dug through the rubble of the vacant lot, shoveled sand and gravel, and edged the paths with boards and bricks. The children all helped; even a little boy who could barely lift the shovel managed to scoop some gravel and strained to lift it above his shoulders into the wheel-barrow. Later in the day, people coming back from work stopped by to shout encouragement or to help.

Building and planting in the garden has been ongoing since that day. Flowers poke through the wire fence that encloses the garden and marks its boundary, spilling out over the sidewalk. A meeting place in the center of the garden now has chairs and a wooden picnic table with benches. Behind that area, next to the garden’s only shady spot, the gardeners built a trellis.

The 4100 block of Pennsgrove Street is an oasis surrounded by abandoned houses, stripped cars, trash-filled streets, and vacant lots. The clean street and sidewalks, the street trees, flower-filled window boxes, and the sun-burst mural radiating from behind the colorful garden all provide striking contrast to nearby blocks. These are all signs of an active, organized block showing the sustained efforts of effective, energetic individuals.

When Maddie Williams and Madeline Brundage each petitioned Fairmount Park for street trees in 1985, they set in motion the first in a series of improvements to the block. The three maple trees, which Mrs. Brundage waters and weeds, are the result of their actions. Next, as participants in the “Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee,” residents cleaned up the street with supplies provided by the City. Spurred on by this initial success, the block applied to Philadelphia Green’s garden block program, and in Spring 1988 received window boxes and whisky barrels which they filled with flowers. At this point, the block felt ready for a more ambitious project and applied to Philadelphia Green for help in creating a community garden on the corner vacant lot. Based upon their demonstrated ability to manage such a project, the Pennsgrove Community Garden became part of the West Philadelphia Landscape Plan and Greening Projects, and W. Gary Smith, a landscape architect who was then on the Penn faculty, worked with block residents to design the garden.

Brundage is proud of her block and defends this territory fiercely. She successfully convinced the City to install stop signs at the intersection of Pennsgrove and Holly Streets. She would like to put a roadblock at the end of Holly Street so that it couldn’t be used as a through-street. In fact, she feels that anything beyond the block “is New Jersey as far as I’m concerned."

Update (2017)

The former site of Pennsgrove Community Garden is now a grassy grove, as is the corner lot across the street. Few vestiges of the starburst mural remain on the building wall facing the site. Although the garden is gone, the two corner lots with their mature trees form a gateway to the block. Newly renovated buildings are signs of recent investment.