Amid land battle, South Kensington gardeners can keep calm and farm on
A South Kensington community garden begins the planting season Wednesday, and thanks to a motion granted by the Court of Common Pleas last week, it momentarily won't have to worry about being ousted from the land.
For several weeks, no one could make any promises to La Finquita.
The community-run farm and its volunteer gardeners recently found themselves in the throes of a land dispute. They showed up one chilly day in January to find a padlock on the gate of the rectangular parcel of land at Lawrence and Master Streets. No trespassing signs had been hung on the fence.
It turned out that the long-abandoned parcel that once housed the Pyramid Tire & Rubber Co. factory had been bought up.
The Philadelphia Catholic Worker, a local nonprofit, started the garden 1988, and has been maintaining it with the help of neighbors ever since. Recent years brought the hope of formal ownership. The creation of the Philadelphia Land Bank in 2013 looked like a pathway to the deed, but the Land Bank has been slow to take off. Too slow, at least, for La Finquita. A developer doing business under the name Mayrone, LLC, paid off $60,000 in back taxes and acquired the parcel from a beneficiary of Pyramid Tire’s estate, according to complaint filed with the Court of Common Pleas last month.
Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center, and Ned Rahn of Saul Ewing LLP stepped in to file a claim on behalf of the Catholic Worker. The lawyers argue that the community — long comprised of immigrants and minorities — has legal right to the land through a statute called adverse possession. Under Pennsylvania law, an entity can claim title to neglected land after operating there for a minimum of 21 years. La Finquita had 27 under its belt by the time Mayrone entered the neighborhood.
In recent years South Kensington has seen a booming real estate market. New townhomes are being built throughout the surrounding neighborhood, and developers have their eyes on vacant lots.
Cahn says that this is a chance for city leaders to step up to the plate for vulnerable communities.
“People in historically marginalized communities have been holding things down in their neighborhoods for years," she said. "At what point do we make preserving those communities' efforts a priority?”
On April 5, Cahn and Rahn filed an emergency injunction to provide some temporary protections for the gardeners. Judge Linda Carpenter was sympathetic to the cause. The motion she signed last week (see below) will keep bulldozers and padlocks away from La Finquita until a decision on the appeal can be made.
And so, the planting season begins. By summer, you can expect to see four types of greens, potatoes, carrots, herbs, scallions, chives, leeks, and garlic. In recent seasons, the farm has even dabbled in sunchokes, Shuka (a Chinese cabbage), and yacón, a perrenial root vegetable often grown in South America.
While the cycle of crops change, the garden's mission has been steady over the decades. Some of the harvest is donated to local nonprofits, and the rest is sold at affordable prices through La Finquita's farm stand.
“We want people to buy really good vegetables grown organically at a really low cost,” says Shazana Goff, a volunteer farm leader.
The farm yields about 2,000 pounds of produce each season. Most of the yearly seed costs are covered through a partnership with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s City Harvest project, and all proceeds are put right back into the community.
“Everything that we make from the farm stand goes back into the cost of the garden,” Goff says. “No one gets paid. This is all volunteer based. We just do it because this is something we all really believe in.”