A Garden, A Redevelopment Plan And A Fight Over Who Owns A Neighborhood

May 24, 2016

 

Tommy Joshua, one of the founders of the North Philly Peace Park, gets ready to plant vegetables.
Credit Brad Larrison / NewsWorks

Tommy Joshua was working in the garden when a guy from his neighborhood rode by on a bike and gave him some bad news.

"Some dude, some like arbitrary man," Joshua said, "told me straight up, 'Yo dog, they got a plan to like, take this whole jawn over. You're doing all this in vain.'"

It was 2014, and over the last couple years, Joshua and his friends had turned some vacant land in Sharswood, one of the highest-crime, poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, into a community garden. The land was about as big as a few basketball courts, and the group called it the North Philly Peace Park.

Now, this guy was telling Joshua that the land was about to get swept up in a half-billion dollar redevelopment plan by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Joshua went to a community meeting at a local church to see if that was true. At the front of the room, there was a glossy cardboard map showing the first phase of development.

"I'm looking at it, and I'm saying, 'hold up, that's the Peace Park.' But it was like something else over the Peace Park."

He went home and told the other gardeners, and they showed up to another community meeting. This time, with vegetables.

"I remember them telling them, flatly, 'We don't accept that,'" Joshua said. "'Like, I see that y'all go plans to build right there, but that's unacceptable. The Peace Park is there, so y'all not gonna be able to build there.'"

The Norman Blumberg Apartments in Sharswood were demolished in April 2016.
Credit Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

So launched a standoff, with Joshua and the Peace Park on one side and the housing authority on the other. A standoff that raises a question: who owns the land in a community? 

The History

Sharswood has been a mostly African American neighborhood for a while. In the 1960s, tensions between police and the community led to riots, and a lot of people who could afford to leave did.

After that, Philadelphia's housing authority built several high-rise public housing towers in the neighborhood, and it fell into decline.

Kelvin Jeremiah, who became the president and CEO of the agency in 2013, says he visited the towers late one night to see what life there was like. "I left frankly feeling scared for my life," he said.

Jeremiah says he saw people trying to sell drugs and that a guy lifted his shirt to show him a gun and told him to leave.

He was only there for four or five minutes, he says. And he couldn't help thinking about the 500 families that actually live in the towers. "What about those folks who call it home?" he says.

Around that time, the agency came up with a plan to turn the neighborhood around. That plan would start with knocking down the high-rise towers and building more then 1,200 new public housing units, including apartments right on top of the garden. 

The plan went beyond housing, though. The agency would be partnering with other organizations to revitalize the entire neighborhood: bringing in a supermarket and other businesses, creating green spaces, reopening a local school, and even moving the housing authority's headquarters to Ridge Avenue, Sharswood's commercial corridor.

Find more of this report at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads

Katie Colaneri, Jared Brey, and Aaron Moselle also contributed to this report.