By COOPER BARD

On Saturday, March 5, residents of the Gray’s Ferry neighborhood of Philadelphia and their supporters gathered at 30th and Wharton Streets in the city to stand in defense of the Community Healing Garden (CHG), which is under attack by the property owner. The area, only a few square meters in size, represents a local solution to food insecurity. The legal owner had a fence built around the property, and intends to sell the property to a developer to build “affordable” housing, in reality a continuation of gentrification in a majority black neighborhood.

The Community Healing Garden was formed in July 2020, after a dead woman was found discarded on the plot wrapped in plastic wrap [1]. For decades, the owner with legal title to the land had allowed it to become disheveled and filled with garbage. Obviously, whoever committed the murder thought it would be a good place to hide the victim.

After the trauma caused by the discovered murder, local residents, spearheaded by Boogie Rose, a neighbor, community leader, and educator in the city schools, decided to raise funds, appropriate the land, bring fresh soil, and grow some food. They turned it into a memorial, and not only has the land served the community in the form of local grown food (like grapes) but it also has become a far more beautified space than it was under the previous lack of care.

The demonstration gathered some 20 supporters of the community garden, who gathered to make signs, talk, and show solidarity. This included representatives from Philly Thrive, Extinction Rebellion, the Philadelphia Liberation Center (PSL), and Socialist Resurgence.

After weeks of negotiating with the legal owner for a compromise solution failed, members of the CHG (those volunteers who added real value to the land) are seeking legal counsel, and hope to gain a land swap, in which the property owner would be given an alternate site for development. Their primary demand is to let the land remain with the community who actually built it up.

According to their petition on the action network, “The power of the people in our Grays Ferry community is stronger than any developer who wants to take away our garden. The CHG is not just a garden but a center for the community. The garden’s impact has helped to decrease violence and food insecurity in the neighborhood. So to City Council and to any developer trying to gentrify Grays Ferry we say: OUR HOOD IS NOT FOR $ALE!” [2]

For community control of the land! End gentrification! Build greener cities!

The CHG is a very tiny plot, but represents the intersection of multiple struggles, primary among which are decolonization, food security, the struggle against climate change, and community control of the land. Hundreds of thousands of plots of land across America’s cities exist like this one, and are nonetheless left to be unused because they cannot be developed for profit.

The city of Philadelphia owns many such plots of land, and is holding them for sale with almost no input from the neighborhoods they exist in. Gentrification occurs all over the United States because housing development is made to be a for-profit industry, in which more expensive homes, restaurants, and businesses are built up to attract wealthier residents. This inevitably prices out community members who already live there, and who are disproportionately Black, Latino, and Indigenous. This development is the direct effect of market forces, in addition to anyconscious racial animosity. The “owner” of the land the CHG is on, wanting to get more value out of “their” land, is a part of this larger process.

Just as important is food security. According to recent data by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one half of households in this country will be food insecure at least once in a one-year period, and a third of households will be so over a 2 to 3-year period [3]. This means that many U.S. households will move in and out of food insecurity over time.

Although the majority of people in this country consume most food products from larger industrial-style farms—including farms that are owned by powerful transnational monopolies—local urban gardens can offer a cheap and healthy alternative, especially for poorer people. Without this alternative, many have to resort to processed foods or even go hungry. A larger system of urban gardening across the country could go a long way towards feeding people with locally grown food while beautifying urban spaces, and it would vastly improve people’s mental health as well.

Small gardens such this cannot, by themselves, feed the human race. But they nonetheless can constitute a valuable part of diet that addresses food insecurity for the most vulnerable communities.

Urban gardening should also be a part of a larger system of re-wilding to fight climate change. Turning many plots of land or even turning roadways and highways into garden projects (replacing roads with high-speed mass transit) would both reduce carbon emissions and also eliminate dangerous heat sinks that accumulate in urban areas, which will become a larger problem as Earth heats up [4]. Many such areas may also (with careful human management) be sanctuaries for wildlife such as birds and insects.

A Socialist revolution to reclaim the cities

In many cities in America and the developed world, a movement has been ongoing to reclaim unused urban spaces and turn them into places of community support. Community gardening has been a major component of this movement, and many left-radicals have spent years building up networks in their local areas providing mutual aid to needy neighbors. As a show of basic human solidarity and ecological use of the land, these efforts should be applauded.

It must be said, however, that it would be a mistake to believe that community gardening (or other small-scale mutual aid projects) can replace capitalism by itself. As the attacks on community gardening show, the forces of the capitalist market and capitalist state won’t allow socialist-type utopias to form within the system, without a fight. Additionally, many mutual aid projects are on too small a scale to compete with the capitalist market, aided by both mass production and the support of the government. To flourish, community gardening, like many struggles, requires radical political change.

Therefore, at the same time that we build community defense of collective property, we must also seek out what are ultimately revolutionary solutions to our challenges. As mentioned, a larger system of urban gardening can and should be implemented in all cities, but such a project requires that cities and countries turn over what is currently private property to the community. The widespread de-privatization of the land is necessary. Only a government of the working class, the most democratic in history, can do this. Such a government could revolutionize many aspects of daily life simply by nationalizing the land and nationalizing mass production, i.e., turning land and means of production into common property.

Furthermore, to allow urban gardening a chance to help the human race fight climate change and address food insecurity means that we also need far more resources to do so. This implies that the struggle to reclaim urban spaces be connected with labor struggles. We can’t reclaim the cities without taking over the factories, warehouses, ports, farms, internet servers, and all sites of production. Then, re-vitalizing the cities can be done in a more comprehensive way with full support from the industrial working class.

You can support the Community Healing Garden by signing this petition. Their Instagram page can be found here.

Sources:

[1] https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2020/07/15/police-woman-found-wrapped-in-saran-wrap-inside-large-plastic-gray-container-in-south-philadelphia/ (News of the discovered body)

[2] https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/our-hood-is-not-for-sale (A petition on the action network to allow the land to remain with the community)

[3] https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/frequency-of-food-insecurity/ (Recent data on food insecurity in the U.S., updated for 2021)

[4] https://www.cleantechloops.com/urban-heat-island-effect/ (Article on the “urban heat island” effect)

[5] https://www.instagram.com/thechginitiative/ (Instagram Page of the CHG)

Photo: Boogie Rose works in the Community Healing Garden (Antoinette Lee / KYW Newsradio)