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Trouble crops up for neighbors of the airport

Eastwick’s Common Ground gardeners fear a $5B airport project could bulldoze their fruits and vegetables, harvested to feed families for free

HUNCHED AGAINST the penetrating December cold, Eastwick's Common Ground gardeners, many of them senior citizens with Deep South family roots, worked the compost-rich soil along Bartram Avenue near Island Avenue as they have for more than 30 years — spreading horse manure over dormant vegetable beds, wrapping young fruit trees against the coming ice storms, harvesting the last of the winter cabbage, collards, lettuce and kale.

But this winter, for the first time in the Eastwick community gardeners' long history of feeding hundreds of fellow Philadelphians, they worry if their days as urban farmers will be ended abruptly by the bulldozer and the concrete truck, as so many food-producing gardens have.

Three years ago, a long-term lease with the city became year-to-year with the Philadelphia International Airport, expiring June 30, 2011, and threatening a way of life that has provided tons of free, fresh vegetables for Eastwick gardeners' families, neighbors and economically disadvantaged seniors who rely on church and community food cupboards.

As the months went by and airport officials remained tight-lipped about their plans for the lease, the gardeners' worries turned to fear.

"Our main concern is: Are we going to have a garden?" Butch Thomas, president of the Eastwick Community Gardens Association that has farmed this land since the 1970s, said last week.

"We are in limbo," said JoAnn Thompson, the association's secretary. When the gardeners received a letter from the airport last spring that sounded to them as though the lease would not be renewed, "I had a panic attack," Thompson said. "I was so depressed.

"Everything is in the ground by June," she said. "We are already harvesting early crops by June. A lot of us are eating out of our gardens."

Thomas said the gardens' thousands of pounds of produce sustain families all year long. "We freeze it, we can it, we jar it," he said. "We live on it."

So do hundreds of non-gardeners, Thompson said. The garden's bylaws prohibit selling.

"I grow so much that I give away 98 percent of the stuff from my garden to family, friends, neighbors and the seniors in my church," Thompson said. "It's an unbelievably good feeling. I never want that to end."

Contacted by the Daily News, James Tyrrell, who has been the city's deputy director of aviation, property/business development since 2001, said that the Eastwick community gardeners have nothing to fear — for now.

He said the garden property is not part of the airport's $5.35 billion expansion plan, adding:

"I have no plans to develop that portion of ground at this time. Our intention, as of now, is to do another one-year lease."

But when asked about a long-term commitment, he said, "One thing I can guarantee you is: At the airport, everything changes. I have no plans today for any other use for that property other than maintaining it as a garden."

Informed by the Daily News[/TEXT.50.RAG] of Tyrrell's immediate intentions, Thomas and Thompson said they were relieved to know there would be a 2011 harvest, but they are still fearful about their long-term future — and not without good reason.

Philadelphia's food-producing gardens have declined dramatically from 501 in 1996 to 226 today, said Michael Nairn, a University of Pennsylvania urban-studies lecturer who co-authored a 2009 community-gardens analysis with Penn colleague Domenic Vitiello.

"The Redevelopment Authority often shut down gardens, giving the gardeners only a few weeks to clear off the land," Nairn said.

At the large, decades-old Garden of Eatin' at 25th and Dickinson, he said, "the gardeners were given three weeks to vacate.

Thomas and Thompson have only to look through the fence behind their Common Ground gardens to see the refugees from an uprooting much closer to home.

Only a couple of years ago and only a couple of miles away, the urban farmers who for decades had worked the Victory Gardens on Penrose Ferry Road near Fort Mifflin Road were abruptly ordered to leave because the city's bulldozers were coming.

Many of them became Thomas' and Thompson's new neighbors, but still feel the pain of their displacement.

Victory Gardens president Mark Pisa, a stone mason, who has chickens and a syrup-producing maple tree along with a wide range of fruits and vegetables on his mini-farm, said he is grateful for the move because "I've gotten two days of union work in a year and a half, so this is how I feed my family."

But although an eagle and lots of hawks from the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Tinicum often perch in a big old tree and watch him work, Pisa said he misses the feeling of peace he had in the original Victory Gardens.

Tyrrell looks at the rescue of the displaced Victory Garden farmers as evidence of the airport's positive attitude toward community gardens and gardeners.

When the airport acquired the Victory Gardens land in 2008, he said, it cleared the heavily wooded acres alongside Eastwick's Common Ground gardens so that the displaced urban farmers could re-establish their vegetable patches there. "Those [Victory Gardens] farmers didn't have a lease with the city," Tyrrell said. "They were just there. They were going to be evicted. We agreed to take those farmers into our [Eastwick] garden area, which we expanded from just under 100 plots on four acres to 160, 170 plots on over seven acres.

"The [Eastwick] garden serves as a good buffer for us between the airport and the community," Tyrrell said. "The airport doesn't do anything in a vacuum. We met with community groups. The whole thing was transparent. They very much supported keeping the gardens. So it was a win-win for everybody. We like the farmers."

Thomas and Thompson said they would feel more confident about their future if Tyrrell's professed affection for the farmers translated into a long-term commitment.

"This dirt," Thomas said, pointing to the licorice-black soil beneath her feet, "takes years to build up — years of hauling leaves, horse manure, compost. This dirt is so rich that you always have an abundance.

"I only wish I had more dirt so I could feed more people," she said. "I live near Springfield Avenue and 59th, in Southwest Philadelphia. When I drive home after a day of gardening, my neighbors are waiting for me, knowing I'm bringing lots of good stuff. The seniors at Monumental Baptist Church are waiting for me on Sundays.

"Last summer, I had broccoli with heads the size of dinner plates, and a ton of tomatoes," she said. "I had 33 collards, so that's 33 people that got to eat fresh collards. One day, I had 31 cucumbers. I'm feeding a lot of people out of this rich dirt."

She pointed to a blue cooler that contained one of the secrets of her dirt. "Fish heads," she said. "And fish guts. Earthworms love that stuff. I have earthworms the size of baby snakes, and I need my worms."

The trouble, she said, is that birds do, too. "Sam is supposed to scare them away," Thomas said, pointing to a scarecrow, slumped over on a small bench as if asleep — his once-bright clothes bleached to a pale gray by months of unrelenting sun, his once-firm straw belly softened by rain.

"He's a mess," Thomas said with an affectionate smile. "The birds he's supposed to be scaring perch all over him. I'll get him new clothes and new straw in the spring. Right now, he's just company."

She and Sam see each other most days of the year, Thomas said. "This is an obsession," she said. "I've been out here after a winter storm, brushing the snow off my peach tree's branches so they won't break. You wrap them up like they were your babies.

"In nice weather, I like to sit here and just look at the wonder of it all — the peace, the sense of growing things to feed people. I've got flowers around each bed, and hummingbirds stop by. How many people in Philadelphia have seen a hummingbird eat from a flower? Why would anybody ever want to tear this down?"