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Old Posted Aug 11, 2008, 10:05 AM
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Philadelphia: Guerrilla Gardeners

from here: http://www.philly.com/inquirer/local...city_lots.html

Mon, Aug. 11, 2008

Guerrilla gardeners take charge of city lots

By Ashwin Verghese
Inquirer Staff Writer

The abandoned lot at Pearl and Conestoga Streets in Haddington once was a garbage-strewn dump, filled with abandoned cars and other urban detritus.
Seven years ago, volunteers cleared the waste and planted beds of vegetables and a thick, towering corkscrew willow tree. They added several picnic tables to an arrangement that circles a lush, large playing field for children in the West Philadelphia neighborhood.

The nearly three-quarter-acre site is watched daily by a 7-year-old boy who uses binoculars to make sure no one comes by to pilfer the produce.

The Urban Tree Connection, the nonprofit group that transformed the rotting urban tract, has no legal right to be there. But with a tangled city bureaucracy and a multitude of private owners responsible for Philadelphia's 40,000 vacant lots, the group's members say their unauthorized methods are necessary.

"The whole transfer of vacant land issue is not an uncomplicated activity in the city," said Skip Wiener, the group's founder.

A nearby site maintained by the group at 54th Street and Wyalusing Avenue has 12 owners, Wiener said. There, a memorial garden dedicated to four young victims who were murdered in recent years, symbolizes Urban Tree's aesthetic and social philosophies.

The heart of that site is a wide open space that Wiener said connects residents in a neighborhood marred by violence. The open space is bordered by a dotted circle of tree stumps. The stumps to one side lie on their sides in tribute to the murdered youngsters. Stumps on the other side stand erect as a symbol of hope for the future.

The memorial garden "goes to the theory" behind his work, Weiner said, by transforming unkempt green mess to a site that shows the neighborhood is now a little safer. What was a hangout for drug dealers now is merely a shortcut to a corner bodega.

One neighbor who liked the transformation was Michael Robinson, 48, whose younger brother was murdered at age 21 on the street in front of the garden seven years ago.

He was happy to see the transformation. "I love it," he said. "It's beautiful."

Since forming 11 years ago, Urban Tree has created eight gardens and farms in Haddington, two more in other sections of West Philadelphia, and one in North Philadelphia.

Even without legal title, Wiener said, they haven't once been asked to vacate. Part of the reason, he said, might be the city's abundance of undesired land.

"If you've got 40,000 vacant lots, you can't possibly need all of them," he said, adding that his group only contributes to the city's goal of becoming greener.

A spokeswoman for the Office of Housing and Community Development, which works with gardening groups in the city, said that municipally owned vacant property is deeded to one of three city agencies: the housing development corporation, the redevelopment authority or the public properties department.

OHCD does not condone building on vacant land, the spokeswoman said, but the agency is glad to assist groups seeking the rights to abandoned parcels.

City Councilman Curtis Jones, whose district includes Haddington, supports Urban Tree.

"In the order of crimes, what they do is way, way down the list," Jones said.

Urban Tree's activities are tied to a blossoming international movement known as guerrilla gardening, which has adherents in Berlin, Tokyo, Los Angeles and other populous cities.

Building before local bureaucracy can bog down the process is a central premise to the movement.

"By doing it without asking permission, we're more likely to win that argument on our terms," said Richard Reynolds, a London-based guerrilla gardener and author of the popular handbook, On Guerrilla Gardening.

Urban Tree's 11 Philadelphia gardens range in size, design and botany. To ensure that the sites remain sustainable, Urban Tree - which has only three year-round staff workers but more than 300 seasonal employees and volunteers - trains residents to tend the gardens and grow plants. Funding comes from grants and private contributions.

Several Haddington residents who garden with Urban Tree said they are pleased to be able to harvest their own produce.

Lisa Barkley, 51, has lived in Haddington for 46 years and now has her own vegetable plot at the Conestoga and Pearl Streets garden.

"On Sunday mornings I come out and I get whatever vegetables I'm going to have for the day," Barkley said. "Which in this day and time is wonderful because with the economy the way it is, this is a godsend."

For Aquil Rice, 37, growing his own food keeps him from "having to go to the supermarket so much, having to put out so much money to get so little."

He added that it's common sense for Urban Tree to build over his neighborhood's vacant land, even if they don't have permission.

"A lot of people would rather see these areas used for something good anyway," he said.

Contact staff writer Ashwin Verghese at 215-854-4319 or averghese@phillynews.com.
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