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Will city Land Bank save North Philly nuns' community garden?

When Sister McKenna first settled in North Philadelphia, she started gardening on vacant lots as a way to engage the neighborhood children. With gentrification quickly moving west of Temple University, New Jerusalem - only six blocks west of campus - could be at risk of losing its sprawling urban oasis.

Gary Robbins with Sister Sylvia Strahler, center and Sister Margaret McKenna pose in the New Jerusalem Laura recovery Center Garden on Norris Street in North Philadelphia. Tuesday, March 27, 2018.
Gary Robbins with Sister Sylvia Strahler, center and Sister Margaret McKenna pose in the New Jerusalem Laura recovery Center Garden on Norris Street in North Philadelphia. Tuesday, March 27, 2018.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

When Gary Robbins arrived at the New Jerusalem Now recovery center in 1999, struggling with drug addiction, he had to quickly learn a new skill: cutting collard greens.

"They said, if you want to eat dinner tonight — that always sticks with me — you have to go and pick the greens in the garden, because that's what our dinner is tonight," Robbins said as he stood outside that very garden, which he now oversees as director of the North Philadelphia site.

Hundreds of recovering users such as Robbins have gone through New Jerusalem's program since then, and all have tended to the garden as part of a required two hours of daily community service. It is spread out over a dozen vacant lots near 20th and Norris Streets, with produce beds, fruit trees, a gazebo with picnic tables, three large composting bins, and a double waterfall fountain.

The garden lots, however, are mostly owned by city agencies and tax delinquents. With gentrification quickly moving west of Temple University, New Jerusalem — six blocks west of campus — is at risk of losing its sprawling urban oasis.

To protect it, the nuns who run the center want to acquire seven parcels owned by five different city agencies. But obtaining ownership means getting assistance from an agency they have found impenetrable: The city's land bank.

Set up as a one-stop shop in 2014 to bundle and sell delinquent and vacant properties, the agency is still on training wheels, with a backlog of more than 4,000 available properties and what its executive director says is not enough staff. The upshot is that some would-be buyers have been waiting for more than a year without a response.

Sister Margaret McKenna, a Medical Mission sister who founded New Jerusalem in 1989, sought the Public Interest Law Center's help in 2016 to try to gain ownership of all the garden lots. So far they have successfully obtained deeds to two privately owned delinquent lots through the law of "adverse possession," which says that if someone has taken care of a vacant parcel of land for 21 years or more, that person is entitled to the property.

The city lots, however, have been more difficult.

New Jerusalem submitted a formal expression of interest for some of the publicly owned lots last fall. But the nuns have heard nothing.

Five of the seven properties are not for sale "at this time," a land bank spokeswoman told the Inquirer and Daily News on Wednesday. The  two others are part of the backlog the city has not been able sell to interested buyers.

Angel Rodriguez, who served on the land bank's board for two years before becoming executive director last fall, blamed the backlog on understaffing. He's added four employees and expects improvement by September.

"You can't keep using that as an excuse," said lawyer Ebony Griffin, who has been helping the nuns. She noted that the land bank, created four years ago, should be in gear. "At some point, you have to start to function," Griffin said.

As part of its strategic plan, the land bank is supposed to sell 325 properties this fiscal year, which ends June 30. So far, it has sold 107 properties (some of which will have multiple housing units) to 10 different buyers. One of those transactions was a transfer of 89 lots just east of Temple to the Philadelphia Housing Authority for $3, for an affordable development.

None of the properties sold this fiscal year has gone for community gardens or open space, despite the land bank's commitment to sell 33 properties for those purposes.

"I think people are anxious," said Jenny Greenberg, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Trust. "They see property values going up, they're eager to see the promise of the land bank as a partner in preserving those [green] spaces come to pass."

Sister McKenna, the New Jerusalem founder, started the garden in the late 1980s before she began the recovery program. She and another member of her order wanted to move from their American headquarters in Fox Chase in the Northeast to the inner city to "make a community from scratch" focused on simple living and peace-making.

"We drove around, and there were just these two godforsaken-looking houses on the corner," Sister McKenna said, noting that a member of the board for the Medical Mission Sisters purchased the abandoned homes on their behalf. "There were needles all around and toys from children who had been there before."

Sister McKenna built new doors and worked on rehabbing the two properties, now the recovery center's main gathering area. The sisters have since expanded to five different homes in the immediate neighborhood and serve about 25 to 30 people at a time.

While Sister McKenna worked, she started shoveling dirt and gardening on a vacant side lot and invited neighborhood children to help.

Every time a vacant house fell nearby, the sisters and the residents of New Jerusalem would clean up the debris, get fresh soil from the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, and create a garden or simply keep the lot clean and put a walkway through it.

Over the years, the sisters were able to obtain the deeds to some of those properties. But many of the lots they consider part of their garden remain in city or private ownership, leaving them vulnerable to sheriff's sale.

In 2016, one of the garden lots — at 2008 N. Woodstock St. — was sold at sheriff's sale for $7,600 to a company owned by Joseph Spina, a real estate investor. Sister McKenna and Griffin, the public-interest lawyer, are trying to acquire all the deeds to the rest to avoid losing them. With Griffin's help, they are working with City Council President Darrell L. Clarke's office to arrange a meeting with land bank officials.

"There's already a lot of development pressure," Griffin said. "So, we're trying to be very proactive with this situation."

Sister McKenna, 87, said she thinks the neighbors like them and would like to see the garden stay. She said she often gets fan mail from men and women who grew up in the area and remember the sisters fondly. Last month, she received a letter from a prison inmate who still goes by his childhood nickname, "Hill Head," which he wrote in big letters at the top of the page.

Hill Head might have had a crush on Sister McKenna growing up.

"I am 43 years old now and have no kids," he wrote. "I've been liking you for a long time, Mrs. McKenna." She laughed as she read it aloud.

Sister Sylvia Strahler, who joined Sister McKenna in recent years at New Jerusalem, said that neighborhood children still come by after school to pick up snacks, which often include apples and plums from the garden. The children also designed a mosaic mural for a peace garden at 20th and Norris, along with a matching massive bench and a table shaped like a snail where neighbors can gather and picnic.

One of the lots where the peace garden stands — at 2002 N. 20th — is owned by the Redevelopment Authority and already has two interested buyers. One is from New Jerusalem for its garden and another is for multifamily construction.

"Gentrification is intense," Sister McKenna said as she stood in front of the mosaic mural.  "We want to keep it green and healthy."