While developers are encroaching on beloved green spaces in the North Central community, Melvin Powell is working to save them.
“I’m not trying to come in here and buy this land or something like that,” said Powell, executive director for Sunflower Philly. “I’m literally trying to make sure that it gets taken care of, and that the people who should be taking care of it have the ability to.”
Sunflower Philly, a nonprofit organization that hosts clean-up events and workshops to provide art, music and sustainable resources to bring Philadelphians together, launched the Green Space Advocacy initiative. Through this project, they identify different community-maintained gardens in Philadelphia that have been blighted, mismanaged or overtaken, including the Uber Street Garden on Uber Street near Norris.
Powell had never heard of the Uber Street Garden during his time at Temple University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in tourism and hospitality management in 2013, even though he lived a block away from it, he said.
He first became aware of the land development issues impacting the garden and green spaces like it after meeting sisters Agnes Domocase and Willamae McCullough, who serve as block captain and assistant block captain of Uber Street, at one of Sunflower Philly’s biweekly trash clean-up events in 2020.
Uber Street Garden is one of more than 400 food gardens in Philadelphia, and has been maintained and prayed in by Domocase and McCullough and other residents for 22 years. The community-maintained garden grows produce like peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, cherries and plums that local residents are welcome to take home or distribute to others in the community, Domocase said.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” Domocase said. “When the neighbors receive the stuff they be so happy and to know that it grew right here.”
Prior to the pandemic, 18 percent of Philadelphians were food insecure, according to the Share Food Program, an organization that fights against food insecurity in Philadelphia.
For these reasons, Domocase and McCullough have made an extra effort to make sure residents have access to fresh food.
“Especially during this time of COVID, it’s very important that we have fresh vegetables and fruit that’s not tainted,” McCullough said.
However, their efforts to promote food security are being threatened by encroaching development directly next to the garden. Green spaces often don’t have owners, meaning developers can purchase them and turn them into anything they want, Powell said.
“We’re trying to get the community, private organizations, sponsors, everything, to start buying into making sure that we prioritize the community space,” Powell said.
Domocase is in the process of gaining ownership of the Uber Street Garden’s land from the Redevelopment Authority of Philadelphia, and hopes to become its owner before developers swoop in, she said.
In the meantime, Sunflower Philly is collaborating with Temple students, volunteers and North Central residents to help maintain the Uber Street Garden. The organization most recently hosted a clean-up event at the garden on Sept. 19 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., where volunteers enjoyed music while weeding, harvesting garden beds, building a new picnic table and tending to the garden.
Olya Zhugayevich, a senior environmental engineering major and intern at Sunflower Philly, appreciated how the event brought students and local residents together, she said.
“It fosters a sense of community because you could be living next to someone all your life and not know anything about them and not care about them too,” Zhugayevich said.
Ann Marie Paul, a construction engineering technology major, agrees the event helped to strengthen students’ relationships with the community itself.
“My impression of it is that Temple’s a little bit of an island,” Paul said. “And it’s better to have it connected to the surrounding community.”
Domocase and McCullough value how the garden sprouts relationships in addition to providing residents with free and easy access to healthy food options.
“It’s been a blessing to us,” McCullough said. “It helps us stay youthful and we have a lot of fun.”