Eggplant Activism: Philadelphia Community Gardens and COVID-19

February 9th, 2021

by Penny Baker, Archivist, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

The nation’s first case of COVID-19 was reported in Seattle on January 21, 2020. The City of Philadelphia, more than 2,000 miles away, locked itself down by March 16. Following Commonwealth of Pennsylvania guidelines, the city’s emergency order prohibited the operation of all but essential commercial and non-commercial activities and “congregation of persons.” The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society closed its headquarters in downtown Philadelphia and directed staff to work from home.

Hundreds of community gardeners and urban farmers were stuck in limbo. Typically, March signals the beginning of critical garden activities – preparation of plots and planting of hardy vegetables. Local and State government hadn’t included specific regulations for gardens in their closure orders. In the meantime, 60,000 kale, lettuce, broccoli, and other crop seedlings grown by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society sat in greenhouses, waiting for distribution to 130 sites across the City.

Photograph of Wiota Street Community Garden events calendar

Wiota Street Community Garden Farm Stand, August 12, 2020. Capture. McLean Library, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Community garden leaders, Grounded in Philly, Soil Generation, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and others sought and obtained clarification. On Wednesday, March 22, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation declared that gardens were life-sustaining businesses and were permitted to operate during the emergency. “Community gardens are an important part of our Commonwealth’s food and agricultural system,” Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said. “Many of these gardens in Pennsylvania fill a void and address food deserts, this guidance is critical to further curbing food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19.”

As gardeners prepared for the Spring planting and developed protocols to maximize social distancing and reduce risk to community garden workers, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s McLean Library began to collect. We joined the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) partnership with Archive-It to develop and preserve a public collection of web content relating to COVID-19’s impact on the Philadelphia region. McLean Library focused on the formation of a community gardens collection after it determined that there were approximately 50 gardens and urban farm partners with ongoing and active websites and social media. In addition, the PACSCL/Archive-It initiative would serve as a proof of concept for an upcoming IMLS-funded McLean Library community memory project that will provide the web archiving tools and training to community gardens for the preservation of their own histories.

Photo mosaic of Brewerytown Garden initiatives

Brewerytown Garden Food Distribution. Capture. August 13, 2020; Brewerytown Garden Support Post for the North Philly Peace Park. Capture. July 23, 2020. McLean Library, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Over the next ten months, McLean Library archived the social media sites of Philadelphia community gardens and urban farms that played a key role in supporting their neighbors throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The gardens served as core communication hubs for information concerning COVID-19 testing, food distribution, tenant eviction protection, unemployment relief, and the ongoing gentrification threat to their neighborhoods. Carefully following Pennsylvania State regulations governing Philadelphia area gardens and farms during COVID-19, Philadelphia gardeners fulfilled their mission to grow, donate, and distribute produce to those in need.

For example, the Wiota Street Community Garden—founded in 1984 and located in West Powelton—distributed its first harvest of baby turnips in mid-April. They offered free vegetable starts – tomato, cucumber, and peppers – in May. Their farm stand opened on schedule and all seasonal proceeds were donated to Project Home, a homeless outreach organization.

North Philadelphia’s Brewerytown Garden began a free “Farms to Families” food distribution program in May that continued every weekend into the Fall. Through its Facebook page and website, Brewerytown communicated information concerning the City’s neighborhood digital learning space that would allow critical web access to the school district’s remote classes. In addition, the Brewerytown Garden supported its sister organization, the North Philly Peace Park, in its efforts to end blight through repurposing long abandoned buildings into community spaces. Brewerytown posted its consistent support throughout the Peace Park’s complex negotiations with the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Photographs of the Dia de los Muertos celebration at César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden

César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden Dia de los Muertos [Day of the Dead] Celebration. Captures. November 12, 2020. McLean Library, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

As the growing season ended and final harvest and over-winter activities began, the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, established on abandoned property in North Kensington, celebrated Dia de los Muertos [Day of the Dead]. The exuberant daylong celebration included the installation of Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Land of the Dead, created by Philadelphia artist Cesar Viveros; a heat response poetry workshop focusing on how urban gardens lessen the climate change impact on neighborhoods; and an evening performance by Kalpulli Kamaxtle Xiuhcoatl – Grupo de Danza Y Tradicion Mexica Azteca.

For Philadelphia community gardeners and farmers, it was an extraordinary season and McLean Library considered it an honor to follow and document the generosity and activism of these brothers and sisters of the soil.