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Neighbors hoping the city will save their garden

COMMUNITY gardens are a popular commodity across the city, but many end up facing a similar fate: a sheriff's sale.

COMMUNITY gardens are a popular commodity across the city, but many end up facing a similar fate: a sheriff's sale.

The St. Bernard Community Garden, on two adjoining lots in West Philadelphia, has been a beautiful green space where more than 50 neighbors have grown food for the last 15 years.

Now, the main parcel - about three quarters of the garden - is up for public auction Wednesday. The garden is on St. Bernard Street between Springfield and Chester avenues and 49th and 50th streets.

"This is the second community garden I've been a member of, and it's the second one where we've had issues like this," said Trevor McElroy, who is hoping that anyone but a developer is the top bidder at the auction.

McElroy and local gardeners have joined with Friends of St. Bernard Community Garden to raise money for the lot, according to director Phil Forsyth.

The group contacted Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who was able to authorize the city to bid on the land, Forsyth said.

"The city has pledged to bid the amount of back-taxes owed on the lot, and if they are the winning bidder, they promised that they will preserve the garden," he said. "But it's only a limited amount, so we're very concerned with prices in the neighborhood going up."

An estimated $57,000 is owed for the two lots, Blackwell said. If the city is outbid, the community will have to come up with the full amount, because the city and the nonprofit aren't permitted to combine money for a bid.

"These people really want it," Blackwell said. "They're raising money and doing everything they can to come up with some permanent solution to the issue."

Gardeners said an ideal situation would be for the city to win, and then to use any raised money to buy the second parcel, which is scheduled for auction within the next year.

The nonprofit has raised $10,000 with a goal of $60,000 to $70,000, Forsyth said.

The Public Interest Law Center's Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer who founded and directs the Garden Justice Legal Initiative, advised the gardeners as neighbors, not clients, on their options and "they took it and ran with it."

"This is a very typical Philadelphia story; it happens in almost every neighborhood," Cahn said. "I'm rooting for St. Bernard to continue because it really makes a huge difference on that block."