How a band of neighbors in Philadelphia transformed a city lot into a vibrant vegetable garden.

April 01, 2018
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The first rule of Philadelphia's Bodine Street Community Garden is that there really aren't any official rules. No one asks you to fork over membership dues (there are none), keeps tabs on how often you turn the compost, or silently seethes at the sprawl of your cucumber vines. The atmosphere at the garden, located in the Queen Village section of the city, is equal parts feel-good, family, friendly, and funky: Block parties regularly emanate from the 20 or so member gardeners, as do pumpkin festivals and potluck dinners. In 2008 and 2009, they won first prize in the vegetable-garden category of the City Gardens Contest, run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. If the scene seems a little too picture-perfect, it wasn't always so.

(SEE: How the Community Garden Gets Together for a Potluck Party)

Starting the Garden

In the mid-1970s, the vacant space in Queen Village was a dumping ground for construction debris and a popular shortcut for fleeing muggers. After a crime wave hit the area in the late 1970s and early '80s, a group of residents proposed closing off the lot and putting the land to better use. With the help of fencing, topsoil, and seeds donated by the local horticultural society, a vegetable garden was born.

Back then, Barbara Merdiushev says, the gardeners had to coax their neighbors into joining. These days, with a new generation living in the area's brick row houses and the latest iteration of the grow-your-own-food movement in full swing, anyone hoping to set up a tomato cage on one of the 12 (largely organic) plots faces a lengthy waiting list.

(LEARN: How to Start a Community Garden)

Saving the Garden

But the garden's success came close to being its undoing. In 2003, a "For Sale" sign appeared on the garden gate. Terry Mushovic, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Association, a nonprofit land trust that works to preserve the city's gardens, says it's a pattern she has seen often. "The community would put a lot of effort into an empty lot, and the developers would respond and say, 'Wow, maybe we should think about building here,' " she says.

Garden members worked every angle they could think of, Tracy Levesque, who lives with her wife, Mia, and their daughter, Josephine, in a house that adjoins the garden, says: showing up at a neighborhood association meeting in "Save the Bodine Community Garden" T-shirts, meeting with developers and real estate agents, hiring a lawyer, and teaming up with the land trust. At last, they were able to enlist the help of a city councilman who used community development money to purchase the land and, in 2007, donate it to the trust. "It took four years," Levesque says. "It took a lot of work, but we did it. We saved the garden. Now it's saved forever. It's great."

(SEE: Our Guide to Planting a Vegetable Garden)

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