The Life Do Grow Farm on North 11th and Dauphin Streets in North Philadelphia was carved out of the poorest part of the poorest big city in America.
Once an illegal dump, set beside a SEPTA Regional Rail line, the two-acre plot is studded by trees — some in planters made of painted tires — and lined with beds normally thick with flowers and vegetables in the growing season. Run by a grassroots nonprofit called Urban Creators, it yields needed food in a supermarket desert where hunger proliferated long before the pandemic.
The farm also serves as a community commons — a nexus of artistic and entrepreneurial incubation in what neighbors call a “magical” space dotted by sheds and a pavilion used for public events. It offers safety, its organizers say, and a respite from “the ravages of systemic racism.”
Founded by Temple University students and local activists in 2010, Urban Creators is run in large part these days by young friends in their 20s who started out at the farm doing odd jobs when they were teenagers.
As beloved as the farm is, however, it’s facing a potential end in 15 months when the rent-free lease held by the city runs out. What happens next is a subject of constant discussion and worry. Meanwhile, hungry people continue to show up to purchase low-priced vegetables. There are also free children’s meals, feminine hygiene products, books, and no-cost boxes of food that farm operators procure from hunger-relief agencies.
“This farm is a blessing to the community,” said Brenda Reed, 60. “We need this. You don’t want them taking land from people. I’m retired and disabled, and I need to get food. Look at what they provide here. Where else can we get this if it’s taken away?”
30% food insecurity
Throughout the nation, about 12% of people are food insecure — lacking enough food in a year to lead a healthy life, according to data from Feeding America in Chicago, the largest hunger-relief nonprofit in the country.
In Philadelphia, food insecurity is at 21%. In North Philadelphia, it runs as high as 30%.
Since June, the farm has distributed 65,000 pounds of produce, as well as 24,000 prepared meals contributed by 12th St. Catering on Spring Garden Street. “We also feed hungry children every day from donations,” said Robert Sonder, 24, director of event management.
Along with his buddies Daekweon Walker and Rodney Turner, he’s been working at the farm since he was 15. “I am grateful for this space,” said Sonder. “It’s been a life-changing experience for me.”
Born into a low-income family, Sonder said he “was the kid you saw wearing only a hoodie in winter. I’ve been shot at by a Glock [semiautomatic pistol] in this neighborhood.
“But I’m more an artistic person than a street person. And in this space, it’s like a magic barrier. It’s a different story in here than on the streets. The cops have never been called here.”
Sonder, who took some sociology classes at Community College of Philadelphia and at East Stroudsburg University but didn’t graduate, takes delight in showing off the farm to visitors.
“That’s Thai basil, still growing in November,” he said, running his hand lovingly through a patch of green. “Here’s peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint, fennel. And here’s our cilantro, my newfound love. Smell that!”
Sonder is especially enamored of herbs. “This is mugwort, indigenous to here,” he said, naming a plant that sounds more likely to be found in a Harry Potter story than in North Philly dirt. “It’s for cramps, diarrhea, constipation.”
Mugwort made into tea is also supposed to induce lucid dreaming, which is when a person asserts control over what he’s dreaming about, Sonder said. This was an important concept for Sonder and his friends from Hill-Freedman World Academy middle school, who’d began working at the farm around nine years ago.
The three guys formed a rock/hip-hop/blues band (Flowt) that didn’t always have enough time to practice. “So we thought by drinking the tea, we could rehearse in our lucid dreams and get to 10,000 hours of practice, which is supposed to bring expertise,” Sonder said. “But it didn’t work.
“The tea is soothing, though.”
Out of Flowt grew the Free Spirit Cloud Co., run by Sonder and his friends, the first business nurtured by Urban Creators. Sonder’s outfit supports performing artists in the area. Urban Creators has also helped foster three companies doing landscaping, home remodeling, and painting. It has hosted three youth-empowerment organizations, as well as 68 different public events.
The nonprofit has a budget of around $200,000 from donations, including $51,000 from Connecticut-based Newman’s Own Foundation, which derives funding from Newman’s Own food products.
Urban Creators cofounder Alex Epstein calls himself an “old head,” even though he’s 29.
A musician and artist, Epstein helped start Urban Creators when he was a Temple University student 10 years ago, doing community organizing in North Philadelphia.
“There were 15 to 20 cofounders, mostly teens from the neighborhood,” Epstein said. “The common denominator in the deep relationships we made with one another was a love of this community.”
The primary issue for the group was finding a safe space for young people. “We turned vacant land into a farm, art, and education space,” Epstein said. “My privilege as a white man in society with a college degree gives me access to network with folks who come from traditional frameworks. My role is to leverage my privilege to open doors for us.”
It’s been cofounder Devon Bailey’s job to build the place, literally. Using carpentry skills he learned from a vocational school in Pittsburgh, Bailey, a home remodeler, created structures and small buildings on the farm site used for community gatherings.
“I grew up here and I made some wrong choices, dealing drugs,” said Bailey, who’s Daekweon Walker’s father. “But I asked God for help and this idea of the farm is what he sent me. It’s something people said shouldn’t be there. But here it is.”
Whether it will stay is another matter.
When the Urban Creators lease runs out in February 2022, its founders fear the city will sell off the land to a developer or to nearby Temple, which has been expanding into the neighborhood.
Urban Creators hopes to own the land through the Philadelphia Land Bank, a tool that simplifies the process of transferring city-owned properties to private owners.
“We need to let the city understand the social and emotional health this space has,” Epstein said. “Jobs created, youth engaged, food grown — those are the indicators of the place’s impact.”
A spokesperson for City Council President Darrell L. Clarke’s office said Clarke “has always been supportive of the farm, and we remain supportive.”
Ultimately, the city needs to know that the farm is a “reimagination of city land, a radical collaboration in the service of empowering Black and brown communities in North Central Philly,” said farm manager Mari Morales-Williams.
She said that research shows the land once belonged to the Leni-Lenape indigenous people. It became a farm in the 1700s, then later was the site of a coal refinery, an ice and refrigerator factory, and, in the early 1900s, a warehouse for the city’s Board of Education. The site was a junkyard from the 1960s through 1980s, and the city demolished the abandoned refrigerator factory in 1990, leaving a field of rubble. Village of Arts & Humanities, a North Philadelphia arts organization, covered the whole area with soil and grew a tree farm there for around 10 years. But half the place turned into an illegal dumpsite in the early part of the century and remained that way until 2010.
“That was stolen land,” said Morales-Williams, referencing its seizure from Native Americans. She added that Urban Creators would like to see “land justice done,” and present North Philadelphia people with the site to allow something decent and vital to thrive.
“We need to educate people that the lease will soon be up,” Morales-Williams said, “and that we have to fight for this land.”
The Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.