In West Philly, residents are taking vacant, ignored, and unkempt city-owned lots that have existed in poor condition for decades, into their own hands.

A view of 214 S. 50th St. in the past

Last March, members of the Walnut Hill Community Association (WHCA) received a roughly $10K grant from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia to transform two vacant 50th St. lots, 208 & 214 S. 50th St., into community and resident-maintained gardens, with individual garden plots.

That same lot, this week

“We’re hoping this can contribute to what I see as a decline in nutrition and dietary habits,” said Suet Lim, a WHCA member who wrote the grant application last spring.

According to the statistics, she’s right. In Philadelphia, 64 percent of adults and 57 percent of children are obese, according to a 2010 report by the Philadelphia Department of Health. Seventy percent of those children live in North Philadelphia. We hope these forward thinking West Philadelphians will inspire some action up North where there are enough vacant lots to turn North Philly from the Wild West into farm country. (Would that be more like the Midwest? But we digress.)

208 S. 50th St., the other lot turned garden

The lots have been vacant since the early 80’s, according to Lim. In the past, some clean-up was done to turn the vacant lots into mini-parks before this most recent initiative to turn the weeds and tall grasses into blueberry bushels, tomatoes, peppers, herbs and the like.

Partitioned into 11, four-foot by four-foot individual gardens, the plots were delved out to community members using a lottery system on a first-come, first-serve basis to WHCA members first, then other members of the community.

Closer look at 214 S. 50th St.

Still in question is 219 S. 49th St., another city-owned lot. The grant called for the transformation of three lots, and WHCA had planned on using this one as the third. Unbeknownst to WHCA members, the next-door owners of this lot attempted to purchase it but were denied by City officials. According to Suet, drug arrests were made on the lot as recent as this past August. In an effort to ensure that the lot becomes a community garden, WHCA is leading an effort to purchase it from the city.

This initiative is part of a larger WHCA Neighborhood Plan created in colloboration with help from members of The Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation. It was the first approved by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission under its new guidelines. We’ll have more info on the plan soon, but for now, you can see it here.

“It’s a good working asset to the Walnut Hill Community,” said WHCA president Horace Patterson about the gardens.

It goes to show that when the city drags its feet, which is a rare occasion in Philly (not really), inspired residents can find ways to make things grow at that old intersection of urban blight and urban revitalization, that old crossway between the way things were and the way we envision things can be.

–Lou Mancinelli