By Nick Millman
Using the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden is how Mara Henao, a Kensington resident, first learned about the Philly Socialists (PS). Now, Mara serves as one of the co-chairs for PS, and continues to use the garden for personal use and for political organizing. “It is a green space,” Mara said, “a shared garden, but also a public park for the community at large to enjoy.”
Other community gardens throughout Philadelphia, such as those of the City Harvest program led by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) and other nonprofits, are not as accessible to the people at large. Enclosed by steel fences with lock and key, city-owned gardens are made up of several, private plots of land that individuals rent. Garden use is restricted to enrolled PHS members. To volunteer and access a fenced-off PHS garden, one must apply for membership, a process that requires paying $100, submitting financial history, and proving that one lives within designated zones in the city to qualify. There are generally long waitlists to register for a plot, which can last from several months, up to even a year. Although such gardens are considered “community-owned,” in practice they are not readily available to the people in general for free use.
The César Iglesias garden, located at Lawrence and Arlington street in North Kensington, does not require financial payment and does not divide up the land into individually owned plots. The shared, open quality of these gardens invites Philadelphia people, especially Black and immigrant communities who live in Kensington, to interact with unenclosed green space, to access food grown from the land, and to deepen, even redefine, community relations in urban spaces. Local church members and neighborhood residents have participated in clean ups in the past and have shared garden seeds with each other to grow in their own backyards.
Anthony Ryan, a resident of Kensington, regularly uses the César Iglesias garden and tends to it alongside members of Philly Socialists, his partner, and his neighbors. After learning about the garden from a PS member knocking on his door last year, Anthony began picking edible herbs and decided to become more involved in the garden activities. “This garden means everything to me,” Anthony said. “Community is home.”
Volunteers at the garden regularly host events to create community, and a sense of home and belonging. For example, on Saturday, April 6, the PS participated in the citywide 12th Annual Philly Spring Clean Up event to prepare the garden for the spring planting season. Over forty people volunteered for the daylong clean up, including members of Philly Socialists, Kensington residents, and others from local organizations, such as the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (also known as APM for Everyone), and the greening program part of the South Kensington Community Partners (SKCP). Everyone made bed repairs for plants and removed litter from the garden. Volunteers also enjoyed the warm, spring day together, freely picking edible plants to take home, listening to music from speakers supplied by the SKCP, and eating tacos from the local food truck.
Amy Gottsegen, a member of PS who coordinates events and organizes outreach for the garden, explained that the citywide day of clean up kicked off a series of related events to be held at the garden. “We try to have monthly events,” she went on to say, “our goal is to have a consistent presence” to build community. Garden work, organizing, and events take place year-round. During the colder months, volunteers, including members of PS and of the local community, door-knock on the homes of Kensington residents and distribute flyers that detail information about the garden and its activities, like seed-planting and indoor gardening. Volunteers regularly door-knock to build relationships with Kensington residents and to make sure they know the garden space is available for free use. During warmer months, block parties, gardening tutorials, and much more, take place.
A Brief History of the Gardens
Building community out of the ruins of urban development has been at the heart of the César Iglesias gardens project since its founding in 2013. The Philly Socialists first established the garden by taking over unused land and transforming it into a collective garden and park space. The garden is named after the playwright, labor organizer, and president of the Puerto Rican Communist Party, César Iglesias, and in honor of the immigrant Puerto Rican and Latinx community that live in North Kensington.
The garden is rich in both social and ecological diversity. Fuego Nuevo, a ceremonial performance troupe led by Cesar Viveros, has recently performed rituals and dances on the garden lands. Cesar’s artistic work and sculptures also grace the gardens. His artistic practice draws from Toltec and Aztec cultures, indigenous groups that originated from what is today known as Mexico. His powerful decorative contributions to the garden also include a statue of Quetzalcoatl, a feathered-serpent god, which stands at the entrance, and an impressive mural of painted ceramic skulls.
More recently, the garden has become a site for mourning and memorialization. Cesar’s wife recently passed away; to honor her life, he planted a juneberry tree in the garden. After real estate developers purchased the land of a nearby community garden called La Finquita and forced it to close down, community members started to transplant its vegetation to the César Iglesias gardens. A founding member of La Finquita planted a forsythia bush as a way to commemorate her son who also recently passed. The memorialization of lives and lands lost through the practice of transplantation has deeply shaped both the community bonds and the ecology of the garden.
Zef Willow, a gardener who helps care for the plants, said that the garden is a “miniature, living ecosystem.” A mound of compost crawling with insect life — layered with scraps of onion, lettuce, oyster shells, and coffee grounds — supplies nitrogen and carbon to the earth and produces fertile soil. While some features of the garden, like the woody perennials growing in constructed herb beds, were planted by gardeners and volunteers, other plant life and edibles, such as sage and celandine, migrated into the garden on their own. Zef praised the garden’s “unruliness,” noting that the natural barrier of mugwort lining the garden keeps trash at bay.
Zef acknowledged that the gardens grow on indigenous Lenape land, and that the political connections between (de)colonization, land expropriation, and socialized gardening have not been sufficiently taken up in mainstream conversations about combating gentrification. “This garden is unique because it is also a political stronghold,” Zef went on to say. After participating in the Standing Rock Solidarity Group to challenge the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2016, Zef believes the activities at the garden align with visions of decolonization. “The garden was born out of land reclamation,” he claims, and its existence challenges the ongoing acquisition of collectively-worked land by real estate development and ideas of private property. The garden, according to Zef, cannot be separated from migrant, Indigenous, and Black struggles for land rights, food justice, and community belonging.
The César Iglesias Gardens, as well as the livelihoods of community members in Kensington, are currently facing multiple challenges from urban development projects.
In 2018, JBA Group LLC, a developer, purchased one of the garden’s parcels of land. Because the parcel is vacant, it does not pose an immediate threat to the garden’s operations; however, it does indicate developers’ interest in land in the area. The closing of La Finquita remains fresh in the organizers’ memories, and so they are currently taking proactive steps to ensure that the garden stays alive. They have reached out to the Neighborhood Gardens Trust for support, a nonprofit that provides legal advocacy to community gardeners to create green spaces in Philadelphia. Organizers and community members plan to do more in the future.
Cesar Viveros, the artist whose work adorns the garden, has recently faced housing complications due to urban developers’ irresponsible practices. Last March, a developer purchased a home next to Viveros’ in Kensington, but the contractors dug so deep into the ground as they were working that they cracked the foundation to Cesar’s home. Due to the tremendous damage done to his home, he has been forced to relocate: he no longer lives close to the garden he cared for and he has not been offered proper compensation for the damages. Organizers have started an online fundraiser to support Cesar financially. The community is rallying to support Cesar. Although the future looks unclear for both the garden and Cesar, volunteers still meet frequently at the garden, continuing to grow its plants, flowers, and political community.
Art by Mike Chen
Photo by Mara Henao, caption: “Two children help out at the César Iglesias garden during the April 6 citywide garden clean up day”