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Activists Are Reclaiming Vacant Lots For Gardens -- But Will There Be Legal Challenges?

Occupy Vacant Lots is being welcomed by many neighborhoods in Philly, but could legal challenges upend its work?
 
 
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Philadelphia has a rich horticultural history. In pre-colonial times, John Bartram, the king's botanist, made his home in Philadelphia. To this day, his home and property are preserved as America's oldest living botanical garden, a relic of the Philadelphia once covered in orchards, forests, farmland and natural gardens.

During the industrial revolution the city became home to a new crop: people. As immigrants and workers from other parts of the country poured into Philadelphia, many of these orchards, forests and farmlands became housing and factories. By 1854, the city limits had materialized into what they are today, and the city -- once the botanical playground of John Bartram -- became known by its new, more modern nickname, "the workshop of the world."

Philadelphia's manufacturing industry continued to thrive. By 1950, the city's population had grown tenfold, reaching over two million inhabitants, a third of whom were gainfully employed by the manufacturing industry. These jobs weren't low-wage factory jobs -- they paid well above minimum wage, and often above living wage and one income was more than enough to support a family.

Soon after the 1950s, many of these jobs began to disappear, often overseas to where the labor was cheaper, and the corporate profits were higher. By the 1980s, only 20 percent of the city still worked in the manufacturing industry. By 2005, those in manufacturing jobs had declined to a measly 8.8 percent.

Since 1960, almost 400,000 manufacturing jobs have left Philadelphia, and its once thriving population has dropped to 1.5 million, almost 25 percent. Many of the homes and factories that were once built over forests and farmlands to house and fuel the manufacturing economy have since been vacated and condemned, and in many cases razed to the ground by the city.

Parts of Philadelphia are now characterized by the presence of this empty space; there are 40,000 vacant lots, many of which are in Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. However, rising from this rubble of failed corporate policies and economic depression may be a new movement called Occupy Vacant Lots, which is turning these lots into organic gardens and green spaces that breathe life into Philadelphia's horticultural past, while growing fresh, local produce to nourish its future.

"Occupy Vacant Lots is different from urban farms in that it is an entirely volunteer-run operation," Nate Kleinman, an organizer and heirloom seed collector told me. "There is no motive for business or profit; it is entirely a community service, designed to reclaim vacant lots and turn them into productive local food systems and community spaces."

Occupy Vacant Lots activists begin their work by reaching out to local communities to gain their consent to clear a lot and plant a garden. The idea of community gardens has been received enthusiastically, with many local residents helping to clear the land and suggesting vegetables they would like to see planted.

"It is interesting that this land isn't being used, but many of the residents have been afraid to touch it. I think that reclaiming the space together is helping to break that fear, and building a solidarity of resistance to make our neighborhood feel cleaner," said Meenal Raval, another activist with Occupy Vacant Lots.

Occupy Vacant Lots activists clean and clear the lots, and construct the design for the garden. So far, seven lots across Philadelphia have been cleaned, cleared and prepared for planting in the spring.

Occupy Vacant Lots activists also promise their support and responsibility in case of a confrontation with authorities or dispute with an owner, but it is ultimately up to the community to maintain the garden.

It is hard to watch the enthusiastic, imaginative work of Occupy Vacant Lots without thinking of the South Central Farm in Los Angeles. Like Occupy Vacant Lots, the South Central Farm was an innovative green space, imagined and born in the empty space left from the decimated rubble of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The land was acquired by the city -- or so it thought -- and then sold to the LA Regional Food Bank with a permit to grow a community garden. This community garden turned into a 14-acre farm with 500 fruit-bearing trees and 350 plots of land, feeding both the families who farmed and the surrounding community with a weekly farmers' market. In addition to being a steady supply of fresh, organic food, the farm provided a massive green space and carbon dioxide sink in the middle of the most polluted neighborhood of Los Angeles.

In 2001 Ralph Horowitz, one of the original owners, challenged the city in a lawsuit, claiming there had been a breach in his contract as an owner. In a backroom deal without the knowledge of the farmers, the city sold him back the land. The farmers did not find out until an eviction notice was hanging on their gate.

In a legal showdown, the farmers filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of this deal, and though they were granted an injunction that bought them two years, they eventually lost the lawsuit. After trying everything -- from raising and offering the $16.3 million Ralph Horowitz was demanding for the land to physically living on and occupying the farm -- the inevitable early morning police raid came, evicting the farmers and razing the farm to the ground.

Ironically, though Horowitz wished to build a warehouse on the land, the project was halted due to environmental concerns. To this day, the land lies vacant.

It is difficult to ignore the political risks Occupy Vacant Lots is taking. In an effort to avoid confrontation and red tape, activists have chosen to work without direct consent of the landowners or the city. In some cases, lots have been chosen based on owners; for example, local Community Development Corporations that promote green and sustainable initiatives. In other instances, lots are chosen because the owners are noticeably absent and the lot is located in a community in need. Although all of the lots have been undeniably abandoned for years, there are still issues of ownership rights and liability that, if wielded by a less enthusiastic owner, could eventually upend the project, or even cause legal trouble.

"Of course it is on our minds. Though the city is paying more attention to gardens and people growing their own food, eventually it comes down to development, money, revenue and the old paradigm," Robyn Mello, another gardener and community organizer told me. "Still, as part of the broader Occupy Movement it is important to us to take these risks to try to push a new paradigm."

Recently, Philadelphia raised the license fee for private lot owners from $30 to $300, but implemented a new policy that waives the fee if the land is in use as a garden. Is it too radical to suggest that instead of punishing the activists through legal barriers, Philadelphia may be subtly incentivizing their work, and -- perhaps by accident -- both the government and the people could work together to imagine and erect a paradigm shift on vacant land? 

 
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