Since 1988 -- long before South Kensington's recent renaissance -- generations of gardeners have cared for the land at Master and Lawrence streets that once housed a Pyramid Tire & Rubber Co. factory. With the creation of the Philadelphia Land Bank in 2013, the gardeners hoped they might finally have a shot at formal ownership. So, they were shocked in January when they found a lock on the gate of the farm, called La Finquita, and no-trespassing signs.
Now, they're staking their claim to the property in court. In a complaint filed Friday in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, the gardeners and Philadelphia Catholic Worker, the nearby nonprofit that helped neighbors create the farm and maintain it, are claiming rights of adverse possession, a rarely used legal maneuver that says an entity that openly occupies a property for 21 years or longer has ownership rights.
"It's a real equity issue," said Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center who filed the claim on behalf of Catholic Worker. "It recognizes the time and effort and expense that Philadelphia Catholic Worker and the generations of gardeners working with them have put into the space when this corporate owner completely abandoned it."
According to the complaint, a developer doing business as Mayrone LLC, based in Glenside, had acquired the property from executors of the beneficiary of the estate of Pyramid Tire and had paid off $60,000 in property taxes on the parcel. Gerard Regan, listed on the deed as a member of Mayrone, did not immediately respond to a phone call.
Gardeners who stopped by Friday morning spoke over the noise of construction work coming from multiple directions. They have known development pressure on the neighborhood was mounting, but they had hoped to avoid the courts and formalize ownership through Philadelphia's Land Bank, which was established more than two years ago but has been slow to get off the ground.
"The garden was waiting for the Land Bank to be ready to do just this. It had been pleading and reached out and started talking with the City Council president's office about using the Land Bank in exactly this way. But, like any number of other spaces, the Land Bank is too late," Cahn said.
It's one of the only cases Cahn could think of when a garden sought title through adverse possession.
"When you talk about adverse possession to other lawyers they laugh and say this is a thing we learned in law school. But these are real rights," she said.
Central Club, another nonprofit that operates community gardens in the city, used the tactic in 2010, but then found itself on the hook for a sizable tax burden.
Neighborhood resident Danny Rodriguez said he remembered when the lot was filled with trash and no one cared for it. His son, Junior, had farmed there for years, and a cross still stands where his plot was. For Rodriguez, La Finquita is sacred because of that.
For relative newcomers Shazana Goff and farmstand manager Cliff Brown the value of the garden is what it contributes to the neighborhood today.
Over the years, they've received grants, water-access permits and in-kind support from public and private agencies to transform the brownfield into fertile soil, to haul in water from the hydrant down the street and, recently, to put in a water line. In return, they now grow produce for daily lunches at the Catholic Worker's soup kitchen and donate to the Drueding House, a women's shelter. And, they run weekly, almost-free farm stands to bring fresh greens to the neighbors. There are dozens of volunteers and about eight community garden plots tended by local families.
"We have people lined up for greens on Sundays when we open," Goff said. "I worry what would happen if it's taken away from us."