From Vacant Space to Protected Garden: Hawthorne Community Garden

In the Hawthorne neighborhood of South Philadelphia, Hawthorne Community Garden – aptly named – sits on Kenilworth Street, shaded by a generous tree canopy. Betsy Way, a transportation planner, first became involved with the garden in fall of 2015. After working in the New York City MTA for most of her career, Way wanted to move to a city with young energy and infrastructure for sustainability. Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, a neighbor introduced Way to the garden, formerly the Hawthorne Middle School playground.  In 2015, the organization of the garden was rather ad hoc, housing ten boxes of different sizes, in different conditions, and no cleanup schedule. Even in these conditions, Way recalled the garden being meaningful to members. “Some people look at the garden as work, and some people find it therapeutic. Getting lost in the dirt and growing things can give you a sense of peace,” she said. However, the benefits of the garden, while legitimate, could be lost without a substantial and consistent membership. “People came and gardened when they wanted,” Way admitted.

Making the Community Garden Permanent

Members of Hawthorne Community Garden began exploring options for making the garden a permanent and protected green space. “There was always the question of whether we would stay a garden, or whether it would become a development,” Way said. After all, the space had great redevelopment value in the Hawthorne neighborhood.

Way and other members of the garden got to work. By the spring of 2016, the group had cleaned up the space, established a garden infrastructure, tallied up the gardeners from previous seasons who would be returning, and distributed flyers to attract new members. “It was hard to get people excited about staying in the garden for a long period of time,” Way said, but eventually, membership increased. The garden created signage for the space and cultivated a Facebook presence.

Volunteers working in the garden
Garden members spending time in the community space. Photo via Betsy Way

Enter the Neighborhood Gardens Trust

Then, the Neighborhood Gardens Trust (NGT) entered the picture. In 2017, Hawthorne Community Garden spoke to Philadelphia Parks and Recreation about protecting the status of the garden. The City redirected the group to NGT, an organization that keeps a portfolio of protected parcels of land in Philadelphia. “NGT has a critical role in supporting communities that want to install a sense of community and green space,” Way explained. “Their expertise is working with all the different agencies that deal with real estate transactions.” In 2017, the garden participated in Community Gardens Day and became part of the walking tour of  gardens working with NGT.

The difficulty of clearing the title of the land that Hawthorne Community Garden sat on became evident when NGT did their research. The land title was under the domain of the City of Philadelphia, but was associated with a low-to-middle income housing project from the early 2000’s. For whatever reason, the parcel of land that the garden sat on was not developed, but the title still remained with the Philadelphia Housing Authority. 

No Longer A Vacant Space

With the help of NGT, every agency involved with the land title agreed to keep the vacant space on Kenilworth Street as a community garden. The garden entered into a three-year trial with NGT, a period of time during which the Trust monitors the progress of the garden and assesses whether the space will be a good fit for preservation. It seems likely that Hawthorne Community Garden will be approved for protection, and NGT will take the case to City Council in order to create a lease for acquisition of the land. The garden will then be provided with insurance and support from NGT and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS)

According to the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, there are currently over 50 community gardens providing space for service work, music, gardening, and other activities in Philadelphia. Twenty-five of these gardens are protected by NGT, and the organization has partnerships to protect over 20 other open spaces across the city. NGT hopes to protect 70 community-managed open spaces by 2022. As Hawthorne Community Garden’s three-year trial with NGT comes to a close, Way looks forward to the next steps for the garden, which now has 40 active members, 28 boxes, and increasing membership every year.

Planting boxes in Hawthorne Community Garden
A handful of the 28 boxes in garden that are assigned to garden members every season. Photo via Betsy Way

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