Agnes Domocase’s son wants to move back to New York. He was four when the family picked up and moved to Philadelphia, and he’s 13 now. But he misses the other city.
“Here in Philly, I don’t see anything for the kids,” his mother said. “Maybe in other neighborhoods, but here, it’s really sad. All you see is kids playing in the street.”
Domocase and her family live on Uber Street, a tiny block sandwiched between 19th and 20th streets, and situated a stone’s throw away from Berks Street. Across the street from their home in Harlem, there was a basketball court, a paddleball court and a playground. Here, the houses curve around two vacant lots.
Slowly, though, the vacant lot across the street is sprouting into a vibrant children’s garden and an economic boon for the neighbors. Two years ago, Domocase and five other families formed the Uber Street Co-op alongside Urban Tree Connection, a local nonprofit that funds community gardens all across the city.
UTC program coordinator Hussain Abdul-Haqq pioneered the garden. Abdul-Haqq made a promise to Mr. Carl – a lifelong resident of Uber Street – to maintain his garden when the work became too taxing. When Mr. Carl passed away in 2006, Abdul-Haqq started to expand the weedy, overgrown plot of land that he had farmed to handle his neighbor’s tomatoes.
And where there was broken glass, there are now potatoes.
“It’s about getting people things that they don’t know they already have,” Abdul-Haqq said. “People go to the store and spend four bucks on kale. They may not have that much money, so they have to skimp on something else to buy fruit. We’re here to say, fruits and vegetables are free. All you have to do is take care of them.”
Abdul-Haqq’s philosophy of sustainability weaves itself throughout the garden. Gooseberries sprout in one corner, as do Japanese cherries, fruits that grow well locally, but their short shipping life makes them largely unavailable in the states.
“This food is going into people’s houses on the day that it’s cut,” he said. “Two days, three days is the oldest anything would be, and that’s because somebody waited to give it to their neighbor.”
The corner store eight blocks from Domocase’s house sells lemons. And lettuce, too, if she orders it on the side with her sandwich. But the freshest food she can find is a car ride away to Pathmark.
Skip Wiener, the founder of UTC, has a name for the kids who can’t recognize fresh food: pretzel-baggers. He jokes that some of them can’t recognize food unless it’s wrapped inside a plastic bag.
Abdul-Haqq said the garden has changed that.
“Now it’s kind of hard to keep the kids from eating the vegetables before they’re grown yet,” he said. “You wouldn’t figure kids would eat collard greens or raw broccoli. But that’s because they’ve never had it before and they were only told they didn’t like it.”
Abdul-Haqq designed the garden for children to play in. The logs bordering the vegetable patches – logs salvaged from abandoned lots – are heavy enough so that it would take three kids to drag them off. The patches are staggered so that children chasing after each other don’t have a straight shot.
Every Monday and Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., the lot becomes the site of an after-school program for the neighborhood kids, where Abdul-Haqq teaches them how to plant and prepare the food for their summer produce business. He said the increase in horticultural knowledge comes with a decrease in crime.
“Kids break stuff because they don’t have things to play with,” he said. “Some of the problem kids in the neighborhood are actually the ones who retain the most amount of information. But the problem is, they don’t have anything else to do. And when they don’t have anything else to do, they’re going to find something else to do.”
For Wiener, the gardens UTC nurtures prevent drug activity because the surrounding community begins to view those plots of land as its own. But the land the Uber Street garden sits on doesn’t belong to the neighbors. It’s owned by the Redevelopment Authority, a quasi-city agency that oftentimes repossesses condemned properties.
Recently, the Darman Group of Philadelphia, a developing company, proposed to build low-income senior housing directly on top of and behind the garden. In a neighborhood like Domocase’s, that action has brought mixed responses.
Domocase doesn’t mind housing. As a little girl visiting her relatives on Uber Street, she thought the neighborhood was beautiful. The block was full of houses. Now it’s dotted with crumbling buildings. But she wants North Central Philadelphia to be more like Harlem’s mixed-use neighborhoods.
“To me, a lot of kids get lost out here,” she said. “They have nothing to do and nowhere to go. And they grow up in the houses and then they stand on the same corners. A lot of people are stuck.”
Abdul-Haqq said he believes the garden is its own form of economic development. He is skeptical of low-income housing, which he said often only further immobilizes residents.
“They’re making it for people who can’t afford to live anywhere else, so they live where they’re told,” he said. “You know, as long as you can keep them pushed away from the rest of society, you don’t really have to worry about them. But the crime that happens, a lot of that crime is out of desperation because they know, ‘This will never be mine. I don’t have any stake in it.’”
The Darman Group has submitted no budgetary or design plans to the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections. But it has applied for tax credits from the state, which give monetary breaks to developers building low-income housing. Wiener hopes that, should the company proceed, his nonprofit can work with the Darman Group to keep the garden intact.
Abdul-Haqq said he’ll simply farm on another lot if the land is developed – but he’ll stay on Uber Street for as long as he can.
“They say you can catch more flies with sugar than you can with vinegar,” he said. “But if he has no wings, he’ll eat whatever you put in front of him. He can’t fly off and find something else.”
Mel McKrell can be reached at email@example.com.