In Defense of the Land:
The Mill Creek Farm and Brown Street Community Garden
By Jade Walker, co-director The Mill Creek Farm, with Suzy Subways
“The [Brown Street Community Garden] has been around for 30 years (I remember when the houses caved in on that site and it was just an eyesore for many years) and it now brings much enjoyment to the community. My mother (now deceased), a country girl, had a space in the garden and planted much of the vegetables that eventually found their way to our dinner table. It brought such contentment to many of our senior citizens and lightened their food budgets. Now I am a senior citizen trying to raise my grandson who just turned 13 (my daughter is deceased) and trying to find everything imaginable to keep him occupied and out of trouble.... He spends as much time as possible with the [Mill Creek Farm] staff and he is learning about farming/gardening and he also helps set up the stand to sell the fruits of their labor.”
—Engrid R. Bullock, neighbor
Side by side at 49th and Brown in West Philadelphia, the Brown Street Community Garden and the Mill Creek Farm grow healthy food that’s eaten mostly within a few city blocks. The community garden was born in the 1970s, after an entire block of homes had to be demolished because their foundations had been compromised by the Mill Creek, which runs under the land. Soon after, neighbors occupied part of the site for the garden and started growing food. The rest of the lot was left vacant, attracting dumping and gradually becoming overgrown with weeds, until 2005, when Johanna Rosen and I started the farm there to serve the community with inexpensive produce and educational programs.
Today, both the garden and the farm are facing an impending eviction because the Philadelphia Housing Authority has long-term plans to develop the site, despite the groundwater problem that caused the tragic demolition in the 1970s. Currently, the city’s Redevelopment Authority still maintains the title for the land, and there is little security for the gardeners and us because the lease can be broken with only 30 days notice.
To preserve the land for growing food and education we want to transfer the title into the Neighborhood Gardens Association (NGA) land trust.
For over a year now, there has been a communitywide effort to stave off the eviction. We have gathered more than 900 petition signatures and 90 letters of support from neighbors, leaders of community organizations, community gardeners, and visitors to the farm of all ages.. But we still haven’t received the support of our City Council member, Jannie Blackwell. In Philadelphia, councilmembers have jurisdiction over all land transfers in their districts.
Community gardens serve as a way for people to maintain their culture, remain active, save money, and beautify abandoned lots. In the past, Philadelphia has had a horrible track record of destroying community gardens to make way for development, or even the promise of development. Residents are watching to see if Mayor Nutter’s Greenworks plan (http://www.planphilly.com/node/8804), which calls for Philadelphia to become “the Greenest City in America,” will change things. The Mill Creek Farm and Brown Street Community Garden directly address the majority of the plan’s targets
Per capita, Philadelphia has the 2nd fewest grocery stores in the country. As a direct result of federal agricultural subsidies, public institutions such as schools serve foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition. These limited options contribute to the growing epidemic of diet-related diseases in oppressed communities. The Mill Creek Farm’s markets, on Saturdays and Wednesdays from June to Thanksgiving, expand the affordable options for fresh produce. We accept Access cards (food stamps) and Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers (received by seniors and WIC recipients for purchase of local produce). We also donate regularly to our neighbors' church’s food distribution program.
Youth and Elders at Work
“Food prices in Philadelphia are 50% higher than the maximum food stamp benefits…. The gardeners at Brown Street are what we like to call ‘engines of community food security.’ They grow nutritious food and give much of it away.”
-Domenic Vitiello, President of the Philadelphia Orchard Project
and Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania
“I learned that it is fresher when you get it from a local farm instead of a supermarket. When I say farm I mean a neighborhood farm, not in California.”
“I learned you don’t have to use water to go to the bathroom. You can use sawdust, and six months later, it becomes soil.”
-4th graders from Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School, after visiting the farm
The fact that so many community gardeners, not just on Brown St. but nationwide, are elderly signals that there is a real generation gap in food knowledge, from the planting to the preserving of food. To reconnect youth to the land, the Mill Creek Farm is open to kids for play, exploration, helping in the field, or looking for snakes. We also work with local schools and community programs, and offer paid summer internships for Saul Agricultural High School students. In the exchange between youth and older folks, there is invaluable sharing.
Take Back the Blocks
Philly has an incredible number of abandoned homes and amount of vacant land, which means it has so much potential to meet people’s basic needs. As people living in this city, we have the right to housing, food, transportation, clean water, education, healthcare, as we want it to be. We are the city! We deserve our neighborhoods to be productive and beautiful, and we deserve to have community control over them.
As community members, it is important that we combat the isolation people feel as a result of poverty by talking to each other. Asking, “Is there a place to buy healthy and affordable food in your neighborhood? A health clinic? A library? Are they open regularly and at convenient hours?" We must come together and discuss – as neighborhoods, as communities and as a citywide network - imaginative solutions to meet our needs and demand the quality of life we deserve.
Beyond our own quality of life, we must think of the future. We need to move beyond the current “green capitalist” definition of “sustainable”, which mostly applies to commodities, and look more closely at sustainability as a way of life. A sustainability that will carry us out of poverty and other forms of oppression, and continues the legacy of resistance we have inherited, to ultimately create a world of dignity we will be proud to give to our children.
The Mill Creek Farm and the Brown Street Community Garden represent an attempt to shape real, creative alternatives that are always evolving.
Help Save the Garden and Farm!
Our immediate strategy for protecting the Mill Creek Farm and The Brown Street Community garden is to secure the support of the mayor and his Office of Sustainability for this model of urban agriculture, education and sustainable land use. We’re asking people to call the mayor and let every City Councilperson know that it is crucial to support these projects of ours as they exist now, and to transfer the current land title into the NGA land trust.
For the long-term, we hope to be part of building a cohesive, accountable citywide movement for human rights: an agenda that includes affordable housing, food justice, healthcare, education, and more. This critical moment to secure our land for future generations is also an opportunity for us to strengthen our resistance by working together.
All quotes excerpted from letters of support