Why did the garden go?
That’s what an Inquirer reader asked us to find out about a vacant lot at 15th and Christian Streets. Until last year, it was home to what appeared to be a thriving community garden.
“Why were the community gardens at 15th and Christian removed?” a reader named Priya Swamy asked Curious Philly.
Curious Philly is our portal where readers submit questions and our reporters track down the answers.
“It was so vibrant there,” said Jessica Thomas, who worked in the garden several years ago as cofounder of the First Tabernacle Healthy Roots project. The program, which one summer employed five interns through the Philadelphia Youth Project, worked three plots. Some of the food it grew was donated to older residents in the neighborhood, she said, while the rest was used for educational activities.
Community gardens, which sometimes begin on vacant lots belonging to the city or to tax delinquents, can come under pressure as property values rise, since the gardeners frequently don’t own the property they’re farming. In Philadelphia, the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, working with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, acquires and preserves some gardens.
This situation’s a bit different.
The Wellness of You Organic Community Garden was started around 2009 by Faatimah Gamble through her nonprofit health organization Wellness of You. (The group later joined the nonprofit owned by her music-producer husband Kenny Gamble, Universal Companies.) Gamble owns the property.
(On Jan. 29, federal prosecutors charged Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, with accepting bribes from two former Universal executives, Abdur Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan, who were also charged. Gamble has not been implicated in those allegations.)
The assessed value of some of the land has increased considerably. In 1989, city records show, Gamble paid $57,000 for 1500 Christian St., which is currently assessed at $41,100 for tax purposes. He later bought the two adjoining properties, at 1502 and 1504 Christian, each of which was also valued at $41,100 until 2017, when records show their assessed values jumped to $375,000 each. The garden took up all three otherwise vacant lots.
Yet rodents, not rising property values, are being blamed for the demise of the garden last year. Until The Inquirer started asking questions last week, Universal featured the garden on its website, where it was described as offering “gardening and greening opportunities for the physical and social benefit of youth, residents, schools, families, faith and community-based organizations.” According to the website, the garden hosted 26 plots, “a bench for quiet reflection, picnic table for family gatherings,” and shared compost and water barrels.
The bench and picnic table remain, but not much else.
“The rodents were taking over,” Devon Allen, a spokesperson for the Gambles, said last week. “It was becoming a concern for the neighbors.” He described the infestation as consisting of “rats, raccoons, possums," and later emailed a photo of a trapped raccoon and what appears to be three others — perhaps concerned onlookers? — that he said was taken by an exterminator.
The increased assessments weren’t a factor in the decision to close the garden, he said, though “the goal was always to develop the property," and still is.
“It definitely pains my heart when you see things like [the loss of the garden]. Even though we need places to live, you still need greenery," said Thomas, a teacher who’s since moved out of South Philadelphia.
She recalled the garden as well-managed.
"We had an issue one summer where there was a lot of cats, and they took care of that,” she said. “Eggshell water” did the trick as a feline repellent, Thomas said.