A Peach of a Plan

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Junly Chroy already knows she wants to move out of Philadelphia when she turns 18 in four years. It's too dirty, too dangerous for her. She sits in a circle among six other teenagers at a meeting of the United Communities Southeast Philadelphia (UCSEP, www.ucsep.org) Youth Leadership Council in the Teen Lounge of the Houston Center on Eighth and Snyder, a community center offering various assistance programs for home-owners in the 19147 and 19148 ZIP codes. Their role in the planting of the first fruit tree with the help of the fledgling Philly Orchard Project (POP) has them discussing the future of their adjacent garden and the state of apathy in their neighborhood. Though not everyone is ready to pack their bags, they share feelings of despair and alienation stemming from their perceived responsibility to fight the decline settling over each of their blocks.

"If we didn't clean [the garden]," laments Chroy, "it'd probably be a crime scene."

They want a little help and recognition from their neighbors, who they think are more concerned about cleaning leaves off their marble steps than growing trees, more apt to water their concrete sidewalks than a garden.

So when Laura Smoot, youth development specialist at the Houston center, brought Paul Glover, founder of POP, to a meeting to present his ideas for revitalizing the four adjacent vacant lots UCSEP own and maintain as a garden, they were very enthusiastic.

It's this enthusiasm — along with 622,000 fruit trees — that Glover hopes to cultivate all over Philadelphia.

"In a city with 40,000 vacant lots, 20,000 vacant houses, and 700 vacant warehouses and factories," says Glover, a community organizer since 1970, "there's a gigantic capability to establish agriculture as a permanent and prominent part of the structure, economy and culture of the city by planting food trees, berry bushes and perennial crops. Neighborhoods can begin a process of asserting themselves as engines of financial power. And that's without waiting for gentrification to chase [current residents] away."

Land ownership is the key issue here. POP's ultimate goal is to acquire land on its own through donations, fundraisers and grants. A secondary method will be acquiring easements from landowners to allow an orchard to stand for at least a decade. Glover hopes that planting a few initial orchards will attract financial and land donors. There is no standard model for the orchards, and presumably there never will be. Some will operate as nonprofit neighborhood businesses, selling harvests to farmers markets, restaurants, grocers and caterers. Others will donate harvests to low-income residents while others, tended casually, will have free harvests. The only constant will be that the orchard is to remain a permanent and integrated aspect of daily life.

As Glover sees it, peak oil, global warming and massive de-industrialization will end an era of cheap oil, cheap land and cheap consumer goods. For Philadelphia to persevere, it will need to create a strong local economy with local goods and resources. Trading and relying on resources from great distances will no longer be an option once fossil fuel becomes too expensive, or worse yet, nonexistent. Orchards can play a major role in this shift.

"Localizing a larger portion of our food supply will help metropolitan regions achieve greater food security," agrees Domenic Vitiello, POP's board president, board member of the City Parks Association, urban studies professor at Penn and co-organizer of the LANDvisions international design competition (www.landvisions.org). "Just as green building has become a no-brainer, local food supply will hopefully soon be simply a common sense part of community-based planning and development."

A handful of American cities have already started similar programs.

"Chicago has 70,000 vacant lots and a very aggressive community gardening program. Cities like Austin [Treefolks Urban Orchard Program], Boston [Earthworks Urban Orchard Program] and Los Angeles [TreePeople Fruit Tree Program] each have well-established urban orchard programs," says Glover. "Chicago in fact is enthusiastically seeking to become America's greenest city. Philadelphia is way behind but could easily push well beyond."

Glover looks past the problem/solution binary that many politicians and organizers limit themselves to. His vision of how things ought to be has been shaped by a career of vast and varied experiences.

In 1978, for example, he started walking westward from Boston at a 20-mile-a-day clip. After 199 days and six pairs of shoes, he made it to San Diego. He used the trip to explore the effect of land use and population shifts on natural resources.

"I had read and written a lot, but I needed to learn something more basic that is not in libraries or classrooms," Glover explains.

In 1991, after using a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to research ecological economics, he began printing his own currency, the Hour, in Ithaca, N.Y. Millions of Hours have been traded and are still in circulation.

"The global market is a digital abstraction. With a local market, people actually shake hands, become friends, lovers and political allies," he says.

Glover has worked the perfunctory-odd-job circuit as a dishwasher, masseur, graphic artist and freelance writer, among other things. He has run for political office twice, once as mayor of Ithaca in 2003, and again as president of the United States in 2004, when he received the Green party nomination in four states. He also claims to have ridden his bicycle through almost every street in Philadelphia (especially the "derelict" ones) since he moved here about a year and a half ago.

But Glover is much more than a sum of episodic ventures. He is a lifelong community organizer with his sights set on Philadelphia. In addition to POP, he is part of the Health Democracy movement trying to establish PhilaHealthia, a health co-op providing emergency health insurance to subscribers. He is a designer in the strongest sense. "The designs I do are anything from money to cities."

Though Glover takes the long view, the orchards can immediately help preserve the integrity of a neighborhood from crime and redevelopment. Too many streets in Philadelphia are like big crooked grins with missing teeth and crumbling molars. Vacant lots are like cavities infected with trash and rubble, which, according to Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI), often attract drug dealers and invite criminal activity. The streets begin feeling unsafe, neighbors fear going outside, and decay sets in. NTI's stated solution to such problems — if they present one at all — is too often development and gentrification, pulling out the good teeth along with the bad and replacing them with a set of pearly white dentures. As opposed to the typical urban garden, orchards would act as permanent fillings for vacant lots and offer something more practical.

Despite his plans, Glover has a bum green thumb.

"Things don't turn out very well when I try to plant them," admits Glover. "That's why I surround myself with people who know what they're doing."

For the last six months, this is exactly what he has done. During a series of monthly "POPlucks," interested participants bring a dish and hold informal discussions about urban agriculture. Glover compiles contact information into a listserv and keeps a running inventory of skills. Ideally, the gathering is hosted near a potential vacant lot so there can be a post-meal field trip and site evaluation.

The crew includes Liz Mednick, a retired lawyer and a gracious POPluck host, who filed the paperwork to give POP nonprofit 501(c)3 status. Now they can begin working toward tax-exempt status and soliciting and collecting donations, monetary and otherwise. Phil Forsyth, vice president of the board and a recently transplanted urban permaculturalist from Brooklyn, is testing the soil and solicited the first POP tree, an elberta peach, from Greensgrow Farm in Kensington. "It was great to help plant our first tree," says Forsyth, "to begin in a small way to make our vision a reality."

A week after Forsyth and the youth from United Communities planted the first tree at the end of April, eight more (two apple, six pear) were planted there with rootstocks (small stumps with working root systems used for grafting other plants) that POP volunteer Mildred Conklin had brought back from the MidFEx (Midwest Fruit Explorers) Harvest Festival in Chicago, a convention of amateur backyard fruit growing enthusiasts. It's this cooperation and coordination that will allow POP to grow in its planning stages. Glover has no intention of planting the trees unilaterally without cooperation from neighborhood or city organizations. POP will act as a facilitator and a resource, but never as an unwanted and alien presence.

"There is no typical situation," says Glover. "It's a community magic act. We'll connect with who's ready to begin."

It's fitting that teenagers planted the first POP tree. In addition to grappling with the ambiguity and hardships of adolescence, the teens at United Communities are learning what it means to live and participate in an urban community as citizens and residents. If all goes well, they will be the homeowners benefiting from POP orchards and working green-collar jobs. Maybe the harvest seasons will be so bountiful that Junly Chroy will decide to stick around awhile longer.

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