It’s Earth Month 2021, and we’re proud to announce the permanent preservation of the Emerald Street Community Farm! Securing and protecting the land for this East Kensington communal growing space took five years and efforts of many, from the grassroots to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The Emerald Street Community Farm (ESCF) was first started in 2008 on the site of five vacant lots at the corner of Emerald and East Dauphin Streets. The site was full of tall weeds, trash, and an RV with no traceable history. The dumping was so bad the city was forced to put up a fence.
A nearby resident, Elisa Ruse- Esposito and her friend Patrick Dunn invited neighbors to talk about what could be done about the site. From these conversations, a vision for the Emerald Street Community Farm began to emerge— They imagined a shared growing space that would support community above all else through growing healthy food, providing a safe, educational space for children, and bringing people together. Inspired, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work, clearing the site, building raised beds, and planting seeds, along with their hopes for a brighter future for this land.
After eight growing seasons of hard work and community building, by 2015, ESCF had become a thriving urban farm where several dozen local gardeners worked together regularly to steward the space. The farm hosted popular weekly workdays to which all were welcome to help out and to share in the harvest. ESCF encouraged people of all levels of gardening know-how to get involved and to learn from one another.
Farm volunteers had begun growing in communal crop rows to maximize the yield and were sharing upwards of 10,000 pounds of fresh organic food a year throughout the community, donating to Saint Francis Inn, a local food pantry on Kensington Avenue. The farm was also regularly hosting educational programming for kids, concerts, movie screenings and other free community events.
Despite all the great things going on, uncertainty loomed on the horizon. While Emerald Street Community Farm had been evolving, so had the neighborhood. After decades of disinvestment and abandonment in East Kensington, vacant lots were filling in rapidly with new construction. Housing values were going up and there was increasing speculation in the real estate market.
“We just kept moving along like we owned the land. That’s what we did for years,” says Nic Esposito, one of ESCF’s long-time garden organizers. As the threat of losing the garden became more real, ESCF reached out to the Neighborhood Gardens Trust (NGT) to figure out how to secure the land and the future of the farm.
As with many of the community gardens and urban farms across the city, what looked like one big farm property was actually multiple row home-sized land parcels. In this case, two belonged to the city of Philadelphia. Three belonged to different private property owners who had abandoned their properties and stopped paying taxes.
NGT began to work with the gardeners, Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones Sánchez, and the city on a strategy to assemble and preserve ESCF. In 2018, working with the Philadelphia Land Bank, NGT was able to acquire the first two parcels– 2304 and 2306 Emerald Street– for permanent open space. The Philadelphia Land Bank also began to tackle the privately-owned parcels, exercising its power to acquire tax-delinquent land. Through this lengthy process, the Land Bank secured 2300 Emerald and 1937 E. Dauphin to transfer them later in 2020 to NGT.
Then the terrible news came that a speculator had located heirs of the last privately-owned property, 2302 Emerald, and had listed the lot for sale. “We were outraged that after all the hard work over so many years and all the good ESCF does that we could see a house go up in the middle of the farm,” says Nic.
One of the first developers the speculator approached to purchase the land happened to be the owner of 10th Fairmount LLC, who knew the farm after doing other projects in the neighborhood and understood its importance to the community. After conversations with Nic, the developer Steve Kravets assured that he would not stand in the way of the farm and said that he was willing to swap or sell the property to preserve the farm, but only for its market value, which had increased by then to $80,000.
NGT reached out to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to explore whether an urban garden could qualify for state grant funds dedicated to purchasing ownership or easements for land conservation that are typically used in rural and suburban areas. DCNR had never awarded a grant to acquire an urban garden before, but when staff came out to visit and saw how the farm supported their goals around green and sustainable management practices, public access, and benefitting an underserved community, they were enthusiastic.
The next few months were a flurry as we worked to meet the grant program’s many requirements. Supporters of ESCF generously contributed to a GoFundMe campaign to raise dollars for upfront costs for the grant application. During the early weeks of the COVID lock down in April 2020, NGT submitted the application. Despite all the difficulties and challenges of time, last October we learned a grant would be awarded to purchase the Emerald Street property.
This month NGT went to the settlement table with the owner of 10th Fairmount LLC and purchased the last parcel. Finally, the journey to preservation is complete for the Emerald Street Community Farm.
This spring, as ESCF gardeners plant seeds in the ground, they can imagine the greens, tomatoes and melons that will grow and ripen later this summer, but also at last they can rest assured that these crops can be harvested on Emerald Street for many years and generations to come.