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In fast-developing corner of North Philly, vacant lots become priceless

As developers look to build, community activists and long-time residents are fighting to save vacant lots they've claimed for gardens. Taking ownership would be a way for families to build wealth.

Iris Rodríguez tends to the community garden she helped form five years ago at Mascher and Dauphin Streets. The land is not hers, and she fears it could be snatched up for development.
Iris Rodríguez tends to the community garden she helped form five years ago at Mascher and Dauphin Streets. The land is not hers, and she fears it could be snatched up for development.Read moreJason Laughlin / Staff

A little bit of Petronila Cruz died as the excavator bit into the land she cultivated for 31 years.

“I was trying to comfort myself because I knew that it wasn’t mine,” said Cruz, 79, describing the four months of depression caused by losing her garden, “but I dedicated so much time and love to it.”

Cruz never owned the six vacant lots next to her home in West Kensington, but for three decades, she treated them as her own, seeding them with tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, and eggplants. She marveled at how tall her pea plants had grown over the years.

In 2019, though, the land was sold. The first step to constructing the three-story apartment building there now was to dig up Cruz’s garden.

Community activists and longtime residents are grappling with complicated legal processes and government bureaucracy to try to save beloved gardens like Cruz’s. At the same time, developers are racing to build on them before the city’s 10-year tax abatement for new construction changes at the end of the year.

“After all these years, we feel like we’ve been taken advantage of, and now, when this area is attractive to real estate developers,” Nilsa Caraballo said, “there is no respect for the minority groups who made this land worth a penny, and only the ones with big money can sit at the table to talk.”

Caraballo, 56, and her husband, Efraín, 71, cultivate a lot next to their home, at Seventh and Norris Streets, that is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Two decades ago, nothing was more emblematic of blight in West Kensington and Norris Square than the abundance of trash-strewn vacant lots, havens for drug use and prostitution. Claiming the lots as yards and gardens began as a way to create some security, recalled Patricia DeCarlo, a 30-year Norris Square resident.

“People who lived here and owned their property wanted to protect their property,” she said. “Since nobody owned it and it was a mess, they started fencing around.”

Gardening in vacant lots continues to be a way to beautify a community struggling with substance abuse, environmental health issues, and poverty. The median family income is about $23,000 a year.

» READ MORE: A plan to control development in North Philly heightens gentrification fears: ‘Everything is in jeopardy’

At Mascher and Dauphin Streets, a corner lot has been transformed into one of the many unofficial parks and community gardens in the neighborhood. The land was nothing but damp dead space after the house there was demolished 30 years ago. Now Iris Rodríguez, 70, tends to it three hours a day. She buys a plant to add whenever she travels around the United States. Umbrella-like banana leaves stretch toward the street, while roses, lilies, and poppies bloom alongside a paved walkway and benches added over the last five years by community members.

The lots are owned by the Philadelphia Land Bank, City Public Property and Norris Square Neighborhood Project. Rodríguez said she renews a permit to use the land for public space and community gardening each year, but she fears that someday, the land will be taken away.

“I know that we have people in the city working for us to get our papers [for the lots],” Rodríguez said, but she doesn’t trust the Philadelphia Land Bank, which seeks to balance community and developer interests as it referees access to the city-held lots. “Land Bank is all about money now that the gringos want to keep our neighborhood.”

This part of Philadelphia is thick with city-owned lots, about 400 of them within half a mile of Norris Square. The nonprofit Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM) has been developing affordable housing in the area for more than three decades, said Nilda Iris Ruiz, president and chief executive, and is itself in a race to grab vacant parcels before private developers can build market rate units. Vacant lots create the opportunity to build more of a mixed-income community, Ruiz said.

“History has shown when you have all low-income families, it’s just not a good mix,” said Ruiz, who agrees that an effort should be made to keep some lots undeveloped. “Getting people to self-sufficiency has been the whole target. How do we get people to get a job, increase their income, or reduce their expenses?”

Where 10 years ago APM was seen as a savior for the community, today its reputation is more mixed, with some area residents opposing a proposed mixed-income development on American Street that they fear will just increase gentrification.

Last year, the city issued eight times as many building permits as in 2015 in one census tract in the neighborhood. The median home price as of August was $140,000, according to the real estate site Zillow, almost double what it was in August 2010.

There’s value to keeping vacant properties undeveloped, too, said Ebony Griffin, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center. The lots can provide fresh fruits and vegetables, green space that can mitigate the heat islands caused by all the asphalt in cities, and play areas for the community.

Giving locals a chance to add vacant land to their own properties cheaply, Griffin said, is also a remedy to the city’s history of racist zoning and property policy that prevented people of color from building wealth though land ownership.

“If in 50 years they need to sell,” she said, “that’s more generational wealth for that family.”

Last month, members of Philly Socialists, which founded César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden adjacent to Cruz’s home, organized a virtual meeting with Land Bank officials. Iglesias Garden’s organizers want to preserve portions of their garden held by the Land Bank, but recently began advocating for others in the neighborhood who hope to claim open land before a developer does.

At the end of the meeting, Land Bank executive director Angel Rodriguez agreed to put a hold on the sale of 17 parcels, eight in Iglesias Garden and nine others nearby, to give people a chance to apply to obtain these plots. They hope to have the applications reviewed at the Land Bank’s board meeting in October. Some have gone through this process before and have to do it again because the Land Bank changed its policies this year.

But Lauren Troop, who helped organize the meeting, said the conversation left her hopeful. “It feels like another circle,” she said, “but I think it was a win in a lot of ways.”

The Land Bank can approve an application for a person to buy a lot adjacent to their property for $1, with the understanding that the person can’t build on or sell the property for 30 years.

Other paths to keep vacant lands undeveloped can be even more convoluted. If a lot has been in use by the same family for 21 years or more, the courts can grant ownership through a legal principle called adverse possession, Griffin said. Proving occupancy for more than two decades can be a high bar to meet, though, requiring witnesses and photo evidence.

“Witnesses are either moved or dead, and they don’t have contact,” she said. “It’s really difficult.”

» READ MORE: In Germantown, a housing development, a Colonial graveyard, and the playground that wasn’t

The group of residents and Iglesias Garden organizers are debating whether to pursue adverse possession claims on some properties, Troop said, or to go through the Land Bank application process. One of them, Lila Santos, hopes to gain ownership of a lot between two homes her family owns on Fifth Street. Her grandmother, who died in 2018, used to raise chickens there. After talking with the Land Bank, she remained confused.

“We honestly didn’t really get an answer,” she said. “We didn’t know what to do.”

There’s more at stake here than the value of the vacant properties, said the residents, who feel an intangible connection to the land. The Caraballos, originally from Puerto Rico, describe gardening as “a way of living.”

Cruz has tried to see the positives of losing her garden. She has knee implants and a heart condition, and it probably wasn’t ideal for her to be exerting herself so much every day. But she also recalled that, at 79, she can still swing a machete to clear overgrowth, and she loved providing fresh produce and green space for her neighbors. A year after the excavator finished demolishing her garden, Cruz still feels its absence.

“Now, I don’t rush up at dawn to drink my coffee and get out into the garden,” she said. “I don’t have to do that or anything else, for that matter.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at