Service Issue: Hertzler: Project grows with North Philly roots

Philadelphia Urban Creators gears up for the winter by implementing high tunnels in the garden to lengthen the growing season of crops. | LAUREN HERTZLER / TTN
Philadelphia Urban Creators gears up for the winter by implementing high tunnels in the garden to lengthen the growing season of crops. | LAUREN HERTZLER / TTN

Lauren HertzlerCan you imagine growing up not knowing what a fresh tomato tastes like? Well, never getting an opportunity to bite into the sweet, savory and always-juicy fruit is not all that uncommon for our neighbors in North Philadelphia.

I was recently introduced to Alex Epstein, a junior sociology major, who co-founded Philly Urban Creators with local high school students and community members after a few service learning trips to New Orleans. Epstein introduced PUC, an urban farm organization, to my “Education and Liberation for Here and Abroad” elective class as an option for our end-of-the-semester service learning requirement.

I’ll be honest: Community service instead of a research paper sounded like a good idea for my grade, but farming in North Philadelphia — with my obnoxious fear of anything creepy, crawly, slimy or basically anything involving manual labor — was not on the top of my list.

Of course my schedule, which seems to be purposefully constructed for me to never have a social life during the week, cut out most of the other indoor service learning options. So I decided to toughen up and make the 15-minute walk to Dakota and North 11th streets.

The farm is a culture shock in an area that maintains the unique urine smell of Philadelphia mixed with the trash aroma that lines the desolate streets. Being on the farm is a totally different atmosphere — it’s almost like being inside a transparent bubble, separating you from the outside world but still being able to see it. The farm looks clean and well-kept and even smells fresh.

The farm was considered a dump before PUC took over, Denzel Thompson, a co-founder of the farm, said.

“Every time I walked by that plot, there were 12-foot weeds, like Shaquille O’Neal-tall weeds, trash, tires — it was like North Philadelphia’s dump site for trash,” Thompson said.

Thompson, from Franklin and Susquehanna streets, is an 18-year-old home-schooled high school senior. He met Epstein when he was 14 years old in an after school program. I could see in his eyes and hear in his voice how passionate he has become in just four years about urban farming, which he said he hopes to continue pursuing.

“People here were waiting for a change to come to them,” Thompson said. “We decided to bring the change to them, and once we did that, they changed.”

When Epstein, Thompson and the rest of their crew decided to build the farm — with nothing but their bare hands — the first thing they did was reach out to neighbors.

“We talked to the community,” Thompson said. “We asked what they wanted to grow. This is for them, not for us. It’s for everybody.”

My first day there was in September on a brisk Saturday. Epstein introduced me to the rest of the farming crew, including members as young as 5 years old. He quickly got me started pulling weeds in the damp dirt alongside volunteers from New York 2 New Orleans Coalition, an organization Epstein once was involved in.

The most interesting thing I noticed was how involved the kids from the neighborhood were. They jolted from their homes in excitement, just to pull weeds. They talked to me about what they planted, where they planted and even, sometimes, told me what to do. They were just as much my boss for the day as Epstein and Thompson.

It was also exciting for me to see how passionate they were to eat new vegetables or fruits. To make the transition from potato chips to tomatoes, while at the same time taking kids off the streets and putting them into a safe environment, is a healthy and forward-thinking step for the community.

“The little kids are great,” Thompson said. “They’re crazy sometimes, but before they didn’t really know anything. They didn’t know how to spell or talk or anything. The more they came though, the more we taught them, they started speaking more and they learned how to plant. We expect when they get older, they won’t make any of the mistakes that we made.”

Thompson and Epstein are hoping that the kids from the neighborhood will continue to take care of the farm once they leave. Since the kids are starting at such a young age, I have no doubt that they will maintain the same zeal for the farm — if not more — than the initial PUC crew has.

My second day at the farm I spent putting up a tarp and doing some composting. PUC has been collaborating with Temple’s dining services by using leftover fruits and vegetables to make some of the best soil. Children who were familiar with the farm chatted with me about how it has given them something to be interested in, a place to hangout and a wide variety of new friends. Epstein urged me to take home some peppers and tomatoes, which are still somehow sprouting up in this crazy fall weather.

My third and most recent work day at the farm was a little different, because we headed to a new lot they are working on near Dauphin and Carlisle streets. Being in a new spot raised questions from curious neighbors. It wasn’t long until our small group grew, as community members stopped by to help out.

I see community service, something I’ve done a heck of a lot of, a little different than ever before after this experience. And I’ve realized that you can’t make a change without considering the community it’s ultimately going to affect.

If you get involved with PUC, you aren’t going in to help people who are in need. You, instead, are assisting a community that is truly trying to build itself back up. There is no way this farm could sustain if it wasn’t for the involvement of the neighbors.

Lauren Hertzler can be reached at lauren.hertzler@temple.edu.

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