This empty lot is one of 40,000 in the city of Philadelphia. At one point there was a house there. Then that house was abandoned and it began to decay. Eventually a city agency demolished the structure and leveled the lot. As you might imagine, the emptiness created a vacuum. It was soon filled with furniture, tires, and every other variety of trash. Meanwhile, unpaid taxes meant the ownership of the lot was taken over by the city. Several neighbors have tried unsuccessfully over the past few years to gain access to it for a garden, a dog park, or for their own personal use.
Because of the high incidence of empty lots, a myriad of resources have emerged to help guide reclamation and re-creation in the city. Philadelphia Horticultural Society provides these manuals. Next Great City/Philadelphia has a plan to engage residents in maintaining healthy green spaces. Design Philadelphia did a week long project on “Not a Vacant Lot” last year. An alternative newsweekly did a great job here outlining the considerations and nearly every major university in town has a project dealing with this issue from the perspective of health, architecture, planning, and community development. Urban farms like Mill Creek Farm, Greensgrow, Emerald Street Urban Farm, and more are widely acclaimed for recapturing abandoned space.
In early spring, the center where I work in Kensington began to convene neighbors to consider how we might take advantage of the citywide momentum for creating green space out of forgotten places. We gathered volunteers for a succession of clean ups and then happily secured grant monies to create a community garden.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that these steps occurred during Lent, a season of repentance and reflection. The empty lots and the mountains of trash in this community bear witness to human brokenness, of how we fail each other and as a result, how systems fail us. As a graduate student in urban studies, I read thousands of pages on poverty policy that sought to explain the phenomenon of blighted urban space and to prescribe solutions. Yet the one theme I return to over and over is the relationship between the broken spaces and the defeated spirit. How we live in a space is directly related to how our spirits thrive and falter. The state of the built environment can reflect the prevailing spirit of a people.
The first major work day on our community garden occurred on April 14th, which fittingly fell after the veil of Lent had lifted and the light of Easter had dawned. Over thirty-eight neighbors, friends, family, and other volunteers came out to support the effort over the course of the day. Some live right next door to the lot; others drove a good distance to be part of the action. Each person was out there practicing resurrection.