“The value of Partners was its role in bringing us together in a way that expands social capital, bridges gaps, and joins the community to carry out important work.”  Sue Witte, Urban Tree Connection

Even in a city with over 40,000 vacant lots, the Mill Creek and Belmont neighborhoods of West Philadelphia are rife with them. Often concentrated in disadvantaged neighborhoods, empty lots are frequently sites of dumping, decay, blight, and crime. They make it hard to build community and cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

Urban Tree Connection (UTC) is one of the most firmly rooted food-justice organizations in West Philadelphia. UTC aspires to “build community one lot at a time” by working closely with residents to implement memorial gardens, urban farms, low-cost farmers’ markets, and community-supported agriculture initiatives in low-income areas. In 2012, the organization found itself at a crossroads. UTC’s network of gardens in the Haddington neighborhood was very successful but it wanted to expand it scope and impact with new projects while staying in West Philadelphia.

“We were looking for more land and for more people interesting in growing food,” noted Sue Witte, volunteer coordinator at UTC.

Meanwhile, congregants of historic Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church (Ward AME), located on the border between the Belmont and Mill Creek neighborhoods, were struggling to connect with their immediate neighbors. They realized that although the church is blessed with a large amount of outdoor space – a front lawn used infrequently for barbecues and events; a vast, three-quarter-acre gravel parking lot; and an overgrown rowhouse-sized empty lot – none was being used to its full potential. The church is also located on a block with three other vacant, unused land parcels.

In summer of 2012, Partners for Sacred Places reached out to UTC and Ward AME about the possibility of partnership. Both were open to and excited by the prospect of combining their resources to foster community engagement while providing access to fresh food and safe, vibrant, greenspaces to local residents. This shared sense of purpose made the partnership an ideal pilot project for Partners’ nascent Food in Sacred Places (FiSP) program, an idea born out of years of site visits to sacred places by Partners staff, who realized that congregations have a wealth of assets that could uniquely benefit community health, nutrition education, culinary entrepreneurship, and urban greening initiatives. Congregations offer a robust, already-structured network of community residents who have a clear dedication to social development and are ready to take on projects. Their buildings are often equipped with commercial kitchens, large meeting spaces, and wide swaths of outdoor space. Most importantly, religious buildings are trusted, convenient, and safe community-gathering spaces, capable of reaching populations sometimes inaccessible to social service agencies and other nonprofits.

Food in Sacred Places was put to the test at Ward AME. Through a series of meetings facilitated by Partners, UTC and Ward AME chose to transform the abutting vacant lot into a church-led community garden. In October 2012, Urban Tree Connection pitched the idea to an open forum of the congregation, who endorsed the project and, in an impressive show of teamwork, members of Ward AME then joined staff from UTC and Partners to form the Ward AME Garden Committee.

During the cold months of winter, the group selected seeds that would be culturally appropriate for the neighborhood, discussed site design, devised a planting schedule, and came up with a name for the garden, The Spiritual Harvest.  In the early spring days of 2013, UTC staff and volunteers along with members of the church and the neighborhood ranging in age from seven to eighty cleared over five hundred pounds of construction debris from the empty lot. Over twenty Ward AME members and local residents worked with staff from Partners and UTC to build raised beds, coordinate delivery of high quality compost, and plant more than fifteen types of vegetables on the former vacant lot.

As six-year-old Miracle Swinson explained, “We were spreading love to make the plants grow.”

The energy of the garden was infectious. By late spring, another had arisen on the vacant parcels across the street from the church, run by block captain and Ward AME member Angela Beckett, and dubbed the “43rd Street Community Garden.” Besides yielding a rich bounty of produce, creating an attractive community greenspace, and connecting with local community members, the Spiritual Harvest Garden created an indelible partnership between Urban Tree Connection and Ward AME. UTC’s Sue Witte declared the project “an amazing partnership! There was an organized group of people interested in growing food, and I found it to be incredible and refreshing. It’s what made the project.” She also pointed out the value of having Partners as a convener for sacred places and nonprofits, noting, “Partners for Sacred Places filled the gap between our organizations and made those connections. Having that built-in network makes our work easy and it makes it enjoyable.”

The success of the growing season nurtured a deepening sense of trust between the two groups and the local community. Energized by the first summer’s planting success, Ward AME and UTC came together with Partners’ staff to consider how to grow the partnership sustainably and what they could offer to the community in the long term. Partners proposed the idea of UTC leasing space from the church for a larger urban farming venture, which would strengthen and diversify the church’s budget as well as enliven its building through new programs. UTC also offered to collaborate with block captain Angela Beckett on maintaining the 43rd Street Garden and the Spiritual Harvest Garden, allowing the green footprint created by the project to expand and thrive. As Sue Witte exclaimed, “I could see everything coming together, and it had to do with the foundation that Partners laid.”

During the final six months of 2013, Partners guided both organizations through a lease negotiation to produce a shared-space agreement. UTC Executive Director Skip Wiener marveled at how Partners’ role as convener enabled the partnership to rapidly accelerate its community impact.

“We are doing in one year at Ward AME what it took us fifteen years to create in Haddington!”Skip Wiener, executive director of UTC.

Today, UTC utilizes about a quarter of the gravel parking lot, on which they constructed a 1600-square-foot greenhouse to grow over 5,000 pounds of produce for their farmstand. In the church fellowship hall and kitchen, UTC offers after-school cooking classes and workshops for children and teens from the nearby Martha Washington School.

The partnership has been a growth experience for all organizations, filled with many revelatory moments and a few growing pains. Ward Garden Committee members mused that they had no idea just how abundant the Spiritual Harvest Garden would be. As trustee Marian Dossou remarked, “There’s only so many carrots we can eat!” In the next growing season, the Spiritual Harvest Garden and the 43rd Street Community Garden will be more diligent about distributing the produce, donating it first to UTC for use in their youth cooking classes, and then to local community members and congregants. The lease negotiations raised issues that neither organization had considered fully, such as the increase in water usage and the issue of security. With Partners managing discussions, the organizations built their trust for one another and worked through these concerns openly to keep the tenor of conversations transparent. Future opportunities are unfolding rapidly in the partnership — the church is contemplating working with UTC to open a farmer’s market and job-training program, while block captain Angela Beckett is becoming instrumental in UTC’s cooking classes. As Sue Witte put it, “the value of Partners was its role in bringing us together in a way that expands social capital, bridges gaps, and joins the community to carry out important work.”