An Unexpectedly Exciting Garden

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I never thought that I could get really excited about food justice. It seemed important but also kind of boring, old news, and apolitical. Or about urban farming. Not really my thing. Boy was I wrong.

A great thing about Serenity House, the community center where I live and work, is the intersectionality of our mission. My teammate .O often says that our work is about healing  our relationships– including relationships between human and human, and between human and Earth, and we find that those two areas of healing are very entangled. A group of students from Swarthmore college has been working with Serenity House and our neighbors for the past few years on projects that are summed up under the umbrella title of Sustainable Serenity. They have cultivated our backyard garden, worked with a nearby block to get a their houses weatherized and energy efficient, and are now working on a project called Serenity Soular, which is a perfect example of how healing the Earth and healing our communities go hand-in-hand. (Support the project here!)

Last summer, before I got here, the Swarthmore folks were also talking with neighbors about the potential of gardening in a nearby vacant lot. A young woman who is a part of the community of the church that owns the lot got connected to Serenity House and started efforts to clear the lot of trash and ready it for planting. When she got busy with work, the planning dropped off, until a few months ago when Laura (a committed student leader in Sustainable Serenity) invited me to get it started up again. I convened a meeting of neighborhood folks and other community members, and we began meeting every other week to dream and strategize about a community garden.

There were a lot of questions. Should we have a fence, or no fence? If it’s not fenced, what’s to keep out animals, trash, and people who think our benches look like a nice place to smoke or do drugs? (This last pest was especially of concern to Ms. Darlene, a nearby block captain and wonderful organizer who has worked very hard to reduce the amount of drug dealing and drug use in the immediate area.) How do we keep people from littering and dumping in the lot? What can we do about the ugly crumbling sidewalk, which contributes to the “this is a good place to dump your trash” vibe? What materials do we need? Where can we get them, or get funding for them? Who are our resources? Who are neighbors who should be involved? Who is this garden for (kids? adults? elders? everyone?)? What about the falling apart row house bordering the lot? Who gets to eat fruits and vegetables grown in the garden (people who pay? people who have contributed labor? anyone?)?

Some of these questions we’re still figuring out, but many we’ve been able to answer. For example, it turns out some of the men in Serenity House’s Men’s Group know how to pour concrete for a new sidewalk! And the experienced urban gardeners and organizers of the North Philly Peace Park who attended one of our meetings say that the best way to deter shady activity at night is by setting up bright lights (enter Serenity Soular!).

At our last meeting, we scheduled a kick-off event where we will invite the whole neighborhood to gather to vote on a name for the garden and turn the ground to prepare for planting.

I am more excited than I could have ever imagined about our community garden. It’s exciting because we will be making fresh fruits and vegetables accessible in a food desert (the closest grocery store is depressingly understocked, a slightly better option nearby just closed, and the closest place where I can reliably get most things on my list is two subway stops away, so many neighbors turn to the unhealthy packaged foods in the many corner-store bodegas). It’s exciting because we’ll be creating a space where children can play safely, where elders can walk and rest, and where community gatherings can happen. It’s exciting because, through the process I have gotten to know some of my neighbors better and learn about their joys and concerns. It’s exciting because the process of creating the garden is an exercise in teamwork, and sustaining it will be an exercise in trust. It’s exciting because the decision not to fence the garden or require people to pay to eat from it is a refusal to participate in a harmful capitalist system and a recognition that God’s good Earth provides bounty for ALL of us. It’s exciting because it’s a community whose government and city have failed them in many ways, coming together to say “Our love for ourselves and for one another is stronger than your apathy for us. Our cooperation is greater than you disinvestment.” It’s exciting because it’s a project that going to require the investment of every part of the community (after bright lights, the best way to keep drug deals out of your garden is to make the dealers a part of the team so they care about the health and safety of the garden just as much as anyone else), and it’s going to enrich the lives of every part of community.

Like many exciting things, it’s also kind of scary, and a lot of work for all of us. This is a big project with a lot of moving parts. But the process so far gives me the confidence that God provides, often in the form of the gifts of the many wonderful people who are connecting to this project.

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