For 2014 Temple alumnus Alex Epstein to feel comfortable living on his block, all it took was a conversation about trash.
“One day, I put my trash in my neighbors spot, and he came to my door and told me that it was the wrong spot and the wrong day,’” Epstein said. “After that, we started sharing stories, and I started talking to other neighbors. For me, that’s when the energy really started to change.”
Epstein lived on the 2300 block of Carlisle Street for a year before he had any real conversations with his neighbors, he said. With the backing of parent organization Philly Urban Creators, a community garden and neighborhood rehabilitation group launched in 2010, Epstein and PUC group members have created a new program, called the Intentional Housing Program, last year that aims to bring the positivity felt on the 2300 block of Carlisle to other blocks surrounding Main Campus.
“Overall, people just want something better than the situation we have now and see this program as a means for doing that,” said Epstein, co-founder of PUC. “Temple students could have so much to offer Philadelphia, and that’s a huge resource we can contribute.”
The program partners students with landlords that share a similar mindset as PUC and encourages students not to shy away from their neighborhood, but to become a part of it.
After an orientation process acquaints students and neighbors, Epstein said the amount of community engagement is up to the individual. However, students are encouraged to continue with community building activities and can even volunteer at one of the urban gardens for credit hours.
There are currently 18 students placed in housing surrounding the gardens on 15th and Diamond streets. In addition, Epstein said more than 15 students have expressed interest in participating in the program for the upcoming year.
For every student involved in the program, PUC receives $100 of their first month’s rent, which results in more funding not only for the community gardens, but also for other community building efforts, Epstein said.
“[The students] are infusing social capital in the block,” he said. “All of a sudden this student can really make a difference. We can’t force people to collaborate, but we believe it is really beneficial.”
Along with becoming better acquainted with the neighborhood, the program is also of benefit to students who are interested in the urban farming process, like Augusta Mery.
After visiting the farm for the first time last year as a freshman, Mery said getting to see how the farm works and meeting different kids living in the surrounding community is what she is most looking forward to continuing now that she is a part of the program and living on the 2200 block of Park Avenue, a short walk away from one of the farms.
“Coming from the dormitories, everything is so set up,” said Mery, a sophomore civil engineering major. “The people I met [there] were exactly like me, so I’m excited about the diversity.”
Orientations for the program, which Mery said will involve picnics and block parties, are set to begin in March and April, when the farms begin to pick back up for the spring season.
Some of the funds PUC will receive from student rent will also be put toward an event called Hoodstock, a festival the urban creators will be holding at the 11th Street farm this July to help promote the work they are doing in the community, showcase local artwork and continue to build relationships in the area.
During the summer months the farm will also host an internship program for students, as well as interested kids from the neighborhood.
“We hired 15 teens from the neighborhood to work with us over the summer, and that’s really the best opportunity we have to do relationship building,” Epstein said.
Any students from the housing program living in Philly over the summer are also encouraged to participate and assist with the farm and festival planning.
“We have people from all over the city and basically celebrate the work we’ve done,” he said. “We have local artists showcase their work, local vendors, a main stage and all sorts of performances. It’s a really big community building tool.”
Epstein said he hopes the program can bridge the gap that has grown between students and community members over the past few years.
“I think there are some neighbors that are so deeply damaged and hurt by what local development and Temple has done over the years that they don’t want anything to do with Temple or students,” Epstein said. “That’s real. That’s raw stuff.”
“But [PUC] is a combination of North Philly residents and students,” he added. “We’ve built all this in five years with no money, so who knows what could happen in the future.”
Alexa Bricker can be reached at email@example.com