Greetings! My name is Sheena, and I am a member of Girard Garden! I have been a member of this community garden for five seasons now. Some herbs and veggies that I enjoy growing include: Kale, Okra, tomatoes, arugula, collards, zucchini, sage, cilantro, basil and so much more! In thinking about a blog post for our website, I realized that we have so little up on our website about our community garden process and politics and that given how Girard Garden is located on such a historic site in the middle of a neighborhood that has witnessed the violence of gentrification, it is important that I share some of my thoughts on our garden, our garden politics and the processes and discussions that we have gone through to make decisions as a collective.
At the beginning of this season, I shared my thoughts with my fellow community gardeners about our decision to lock the gate to our community garden, which would have prevented other neighbors and passersby from feeling a part of the community. After writing the email (pasted below) to our garden’s leadership committee, the leadership team decided not to lock the community garden space. Today, Girard Garden remains open to the public, so non-members can visit, enjoy and learn about farming and gardening in cities. I wanted to share the email below on our blog because of a desire to be transparent but also because I believe people who participate in community gardens in urban spaces must be willing and prepared to engage in a deeper, more critical reflection on the impact that community garden spaces have on less privileged folks and also how they can be utilized as tools of gentrification. As well, the thoughts I share below will hopefully spark dialogue for our own garden group and other community gardens on work that we can do to make community garden spaces more inclusive to less privileged folks and neighbors who may not feel welcome in these spaces not because of a lack of interest but because of the garden culture. While our decision to not lock the gate to Girard Garden was a positive one in my opinion, I believe we, at Girard Garden, still have much work to do in order to make this space a more inclusive, healing, liberating and educational space for the surrounding neighborhood community. If anyone reading this post would be interested in collaborating on how to work to achieve this goal, please feel free to e-mail me so we can begin to generate more ideas for the future.

Greetings Girard Gardeners,

I hope everyone is doing well and excited about Spring and what y’all have planted in your gardens.

Last year, on our final workday as a group, I mentioned that I wanted to share my feelings regarding the decision to lock Girard Garden beginning this season. I do apologize that I am weighing in on this matter after folks have already discussed it. I do have really strong feelings regarding the decision to lock the community garden; sometimes it’s difficult for me to articulate my feelings because of my compassion for this issue and because I have so much to say about it, I often don’t know where to start. I understand not everyone shares my feelings, but I would like to voice my reasons why I oppose locking the garden. Some of the info I provide not to sound patronizing or as if I know more than others but more so to offer the history I think is important to discuss because history does not just tell us about the past but also informs the future.

I offer some realistically feasible solutions on how everyone can benefit from individual garden plots while also building stronger relationships with community and neighbors through not locking the garden. As well, I offer my vision for what an unlocked garden space could represent for our surrounding community. I apologize in advance for the length of this email. At the same time, I would appreciate it if everyone read the email in entirety, so we can discuss this matter in person in the future.

Though it may seem far-fetched, to me, it’s really important to ground the decision on whether or not to lock the garden fence in the context of national and local history as it relates to land, racism and the current economy. We cannot forget that settler colonialists originally stole this land that our garden exists on from the indigenous Lenape people, a people who had very communal and harmonious relationships with the land. Even they did not see themselves as owning the land. Immediately after slavery was abolished in the 1860s, Philadelphia served as a destination city for Blacks (African Americans), many of whom arrived during the Great Migration, to escape Jim Crow segregation in the South. Unfortunately, many institutions even in the north weren’t integrated then, and many African Americans either engaged in social protests to integrate them or created their own institutions, so they could educate and grow their community socially, politically and economically.

Girard Garden is located at a significant historical site in Philadelphia for these reasons. Girard College was historically a boarding school that only enrolled orphan, white boys. It was not until civil rights activists such as Cecil B. Moore and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. initiated and participated in nonviolent civic action and protests from 1965-1968 that Girard College was ultimately integrated. Further, our garden is also on Berean Institute’s land. Founded by Dr. Matthew Anderson in 1899, Berean Institute began providing business and vocational courses for blacks who, because of segregation, could not attend other institutions. Both Girard College and Berean Institute came to symbolically and literally represent ways out of segregation and poverty for a historically oppressed population.

Today, despite this neighborhood being a historically Black neighborhood, the social, economic conditions and racial demographics have been changing. Gentrification is happening. Debates can be had on whether this change is for the better or the worse for the existing community, and I respect that people have different perspectives on this issue. Regardless, the change brings with it challenging concerns for a community that has lived here longer than us. Berean Institute recently declared bankruptcy. We cannot assume gentrification has nothing to do with how the school’s resources are utilized less frequently. Further, many of Girard Avenue’s residents, many of whom are African Americans who have been living here most of their lives, are being priced out of their homes; they have few places to go because they can’t afford to live in the suburbs either. Police continue to patrol and brutalize mostly young black men and women in this neighborhood, which encourages the residents who have lived here longer than us to associate gentrification and police presence with a lack of safety. I know it may seem like these issues I am bringing up are tangents, but I feel they relate to the current political and economic context in which Girard Garden exists.

Our garden exists in an urban area experiencing rapid gentrification in an economy that’s suffering. I think we, as Girard Garden representatives, have a choice in how we wish to be involved in the ongoing change and align (or not align) ourselves with a community that has lived here much longer than many of us. As much as we may want to admit our good intentions, the reality is many of us are newcomers who have not lived here our whole lives. Further, we have very little racial diversity represented in the gardeners who are part of this group—not because people from other communities do not want to garden here, but more so because they do not feel welcome. At least 2-3 neighbors/friends, whom I tried to recruit myself, told me they did not feel welcome because of the lack of racial diversity.

That beings said, I do believe gardens have the power to build relationships and bridge connections between people from different social groups. If we want to establish good relations between ourselves and the community that has lived here for generations, we can use the garden as a resource to provide long-time community members an opportunity to connect with the earth, to learn about and grow nutritious food and to interact with us. This garden has the potential to represent and carry a different connotation for the surrounding community. Given that many researchers predict socioeconomic conditions and unemployment rates to continue to worsen over the next decade, poverty, starvation and disease in Philadelphia is going to get worse before it gets better. Girard Garden carries the potential to connect this neighborhood with access to fresh, local, healthy organic food.

I get all this sounds idealistic and visionary; I guess that’s because I’m an Aquarian (We are dreamers). But, on a serious note, the message we send by locking the fence is one that shuts the door on this vision and the possibility of community growth and altruism. When newcomers start a garden, and make decisions about the garden as if we own the land (i.e. putting a lock on the fence), regardless of our intentions to want to build a community, it sends a message to those who are not on the “in” that we have no intentions of opening up dialogue and building relationships with them. Such an action basically may send a message to community who has lived here for several generations and make them feel as if they are not welcome here, which is really ironic given we are the newcomers who are renting (and do not own) this land. I get that not everyone in this community garden space may be invested in community relationships in the way I envision them, but I do think the decision we make has an impact on the surrounding community regardless of our investment and intentions. For instance, racial tension is rising throughout the nation because of various reasons related to unemployment, rising costs of fresh foods, police brutality, etc. This garden can serve as a symbol of hope amidst this intense time of division and struggle. While locking the gate may perpetuate segregation, not locking it can serve as a pathway in the direction of justice and integration. The message we can send by not locking is one that says: We welcome you and your families to get involved; We welcome diversity; we are willing to work to create an integrated community garden presence.

Even without a lock, we can still establish our rules regarding specific plots and print them clearly for all visitors who are entering to see what the garden is all about. We can have a large board that displays the rules of the garden. We can plant more food in our own plots in anticipation that people will continue to pilfer—whether because of greed, inconsideration or desperation. We can continue to plant a tree, food and flowers around the fence border or reserve 1-2 plots specifically for visitors to pick from. We can encourage visitors to pick strictly from the designated free plots and trees/bushes near the fences. As well, we can continue to utilize the free bin that we fill with produce we cannot finish and place it in a more visible area for them. We can clearly label and designate these free community bins. Other ideas we can discuss are having a community day where we sell and/or give away produce to neighbors. We can have a neighborhood gathering where we raise donations based on selling food from the garden. I’d be happy to offer a yoga class to the neighborhood at/near the community garden space if we want to advertise/plan a community day. We can distribute fliers for our events to neighbor’s mailboxes and doorsteps. All of these ideas represent baby steps in the direction of creating harmony and positive trustful relations with the community. Again, I get that these ideas are visionary and would require a lot of volunteer work. I’m not necessarily volunteering to do all of those tasks. I would be open to working with other gardeners toward this vision in the future. Most importantly and the reason I write this email is I am mindful of how a lock on the fence can close off the possibility of dreaming in that direction. I look forward to discussing this matter with others more in the future and possibly at the next garden meeting.