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Could a garden tended by drug users be the thing that unites fractured Kensington? | Ronnie Polaneczky

"I picture drug users tending the garden alongside neighbors. They begin to find things they have in common while they bond over something healthy, positive and growing."

The Paul Yabor Memorial Garden is on the 2900 block of N. American Street.
The Paul Yabor Memorial Garden is on the 2900 block of N. American Street.Read morePaul Cherashore

Philadelphia is home to 40,412 unused open lots.

Paul Cherashore thinks some of them could be used to change hearts and minds in Kensington and other neighborhoods where the opioid crisis has pitted friends, residents, and drug users against each other in the struggle to save the community from the scourge of addiction.

What if, Cherashore asks, everybody worked to design, build, and tend a garden, together? The act of brainstorming ideas at a table and then working alongside each other to bring them to fruition could ratchet down the fear that is fracturing the city – and dial up the understanding needed to transcend it if the community is ever to heal.

I think he's onto something. And, no, the idea is not as woo-woo as it sounds.

Cherashore is a horticulture educator and cofounder of the Philadelphia Overdose Prevention Initiative. In May 2017, he convinced City Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez to let him and his partner, Liz Reed, use a city-owned lot to establish a Kensington garden in memory of a friend, Paul Yabor, who had just died of a drug overdose.

Yabor's death was a gut punch. A long-time drug user struggling with recovery, he had endless compassion for those like him. Yet he died alone on the same desolate train embankment where he'd once tried to connect people to services that might've helped them.

"We wanted to create something beautiful in his name," said Cherashore of the pollinator garden that he, Reed, and a handful of helpers planted on the lot (a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society LandCare site on the 2900 block of North American Street).

Cherashore and I visited the garden during last week's snowstorm. Even in the pelting sleet, remnants of anise hyssop, cleome, yarrow, verbena, and butterfly bush still held enough color that it was easy to envision the garden's summertime beauty.

"I picture drug users tending the garden alongside neighbors," said Cherashore. "They begin to find things they have in common while they bond over something healthy, positive, and growing."

Unless connections like that happen, honestly, it's hard to imagine any drug-polarized neighborhood ever turning itself around.

Cherashore's dream builds on research showing how cleaned, greened, and/or landscaped lots can both reduce violence in urban communities and empower residents to take control of their neighborhoods.

Cherashore wants those most seriously impacted by drug use to be part of the planning and execution that yields all the good stuff. Because the process itself can be a godsend.

"People dealing with addiction usually experience high stress and low self-esteem," says Peg Schofield, a registered horticultural therapist who oversees her discipline's certification program in Temple University's landscape architecture and horticulture program. "They may act out because of anger, anxiety, loneliness, or depression."

Tending a garden can mitigate that pain, says Sister Margaret McKenna, a Medical Mission nun and founder of New Jerusalem, the North Philly addiction-recovery center whose vegetable gardens are a critical part of treatment.

"Too much of addiction treatment is very passive. But it takes a lot of energy to resist drugs, so we can't cultivate passivity," says McKenna. "In the garden, you create something out of nothing. After being isolated for so long, you reconnect with life, you nurture something good, you see how your decisions impact the life of the plants you're tending – and how your past decisions impacted your community."

Across the city, a handful of gardens geared toward addiction recovery are flourishing, including Friends Garden of Peace and Understanding in Belmont and the "healing garden," established by Cloud 9 Rooftop Farms, at the Kirkbride addiction and mental-health treatment center in West Philly.

"When I put down drugs and alcohol, I had to pick up something better," says Danyell Brent, clean and sober for seven years, who leads plant-tending workshops at Kirkbride. "In the garden, I was not an alcoholic or a crackhead. I was a community member doing something good."

So I wondered: Could the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society use its clout to mainstream the recovery-garden model? PHS has already taken on returning-offender employment through its Roots to Re-Entry program and food insecurity through last summer's Farm for the City project on Thomas Paine Plaza.

Spokesperson Kevin Feeley says PHS isn't focused on the opioid crisis and its impact on the community right now, which is not to say it wouldn't in the future if communities asked for it.

In honor of its 200th birthday in 2027, the organization is soliciting public input about how to refocus its mission to impact society's most pressing needs. I think the need to heal our drug-ravaged neighborhoods ranks right up there. If you think gardening could help, you can fill out a form on the PHS website.

Because we need to start harvesting something hopeful.