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Harrisburg, PA: From Blight to Beauty

  • Subject: [cg] Harrisburg, PA: From Blight to Beauty
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Thu, 24 Jun 2004 07:49:42 EDT

Residents turn city's vacant lots into gardens
Thursday, June 24, 2004
BY GEORGE WEIGELFor The Patriot-News
Drive or walk through some of Harrisburg's most economically blighted neighborhoods, and you won't get far without encountering the city version of an oasis.
Like the first wildflower seedlings that pop up after a forest fire, the patches of life slowly replace broken cinder blocks, old tires, rusting cars and piles of trash.
It may not be a botanical renaissance; for every city lot that has a garden, you'll find 20 others that could use one.
But a grass-roots movement involving Penn State-trained master gardeners, garden clubs, civic groups, church groups, college students, school groups and residents is bringing beauty to blighted areas.
"We're seeing an increase in these kind of activities," says Randy King, spokesman for Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed. "Gardening, cleanup and volunteering in general are all up in the last few years throughout the city."
Pride is at the heart of it, King says. People are tired of blighted neighborhoods and are trying to do something about them.
The city started the effort about 12 years ago with an Adopt-a-Lot program that allows residents or organizations to lease an abandoned city-owned lot for $1 a year.
This year, the city is leasing 30 lots to 24 groups and people. The person or group cleans up the lot and promises to keep it free of debris and litter. The city installs a fence and at times provides donated tools and supplies.
"Typically, the people we work with live on the same street or adjacent to the parcel," says Kathy Toepfer, who coordinates Adopt-a-Lot for the city's Department of Building and Housing Development. "Many of them put in a small garden, either flowers or vegetables. The goal is to transform a vacant blighted lot into something the neighborhood is proud of."
Dumping stops:
You'll find no better example than in the 1200 block of Bailey Street, in the heart of Allison Hill, one of the city's most crime-ridden sections.
"This whole block had dilapidated houses on it," says David Wise, who has lived in this Summit Terrace neighborhood for 50 years. "The houses were blighted, and the kids were going inside them. It was a safety hazard."
Three years ago, the Summit Terrace Neighborhood Association adopted the whole block. The city tore down all 10 houses, planted grass and erected a vinyl picket fence around the site.
"Right away there was graffiti all over the fence," says Wise, the association's president.
Undeterred, Wise, a nongardener retired from Bethlehem Steel Corp., set to work transforming the 60-by-200-foot lot into a park. He bought a gardening book, visited garden centers and, with the help of Leadership Harrisburg Area (a civic group of business leaders), began planting.
Mums and variegated dogwood shrubs now line the front fence.
A burning-bush hedge turns bright red in fall along the back and left borders.
A rock garden of flowering perennials spills down a slope along the property's right border.
At the center of the minipark are island beds that house a butterfly garden and a rose garden with a birdbath.
There has been no graffiti and no vandalism since the plantings went in.
"When you show people you're trying to improve their quality of life, they respect it," Wise says. "They look at it as their own."
That has been the case at practically every garden that has replaced a trash-strewn lot.
Dumping stops. Vandalism disappears.
'It gives you joy':
Susan and Vernon Rudy moved into the 1400 block of Market Street in Allison Hill more than five years ago to set up a home for troubled youths. One of the first things they did was adopt the vacant lot next door and turn it into a series of raised flower beds.
"I'm originally from Baltimore, and this is what we did in the neighborhoods," Susan Rudy says. "I love kids and I love gardening. If you give kids something to do, they'll stay out of trouble."
Buried bricks from the torn-down house made the adopted lot impossible to garden. So, with the help of neighbors and Messiah College students and staff, the Rudys built raised gardens out of recycled wood, tires, brick and plastic kiddy swimming pools.
They have since adopted a second adjoining lot for vegetables and have even added a water garden with a fountain and a giant mural painted on the side of their brick house.
It's all out in the open for all who pass by on Market Street. Yet there's been no vandalism.
"People respect it," says Susan. "It's like a community garden. ... I think people need a garden. Everything is so bright. It gives you joy."
A lesson for children:
A garden can also provide fresh food and lessons to urban kids.
At the corner of Penn and Peffer streets in Harrisburg's Midtown section you'll find cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and assorted other vegetables growing in a 30-by-90-foot lot.
"People used to fix cars there," says Pam Howard-Brown, who gardens the lot with her husband and a few neighbors. "It was mostly gravel and motor oil."
About seven years ago, the Sandy Hollow Arts and Recreation for the Environment group adopted the lot and installed the garden in memory of member Chuck Vuxta.
"A lot of kids have never seen the seed-to-fruit cycle, and Chuck thought that was important," Howard-Brown says.
Now kids in that neighborhood know that potatoes originate underground, not in a bag at the supermarket.
The garden also has a 10-foot strip of native shrubs and perennials so kids can see what plants grow naturally in Pennsylvania.
A few blocks away, kids at the Neighborhood Center of the United Methodist Church learn to plant and harvest veggies in raised beds in the playground across the street at Third and Kelker streets.
They also learn about butterflies and nature in a garden the Venture Club installed last year, one that features a brick-paver walkway, six bird feeders and wildlife-friendly plants such as butterfly bushes, spireas, hydrangeas and clematis vines.
Near Sixth and Maclay, the Camp Curtin YMCA is adding the city's newest post-blight garden -- a "Senses Garden."
"Each corner of the garden is going to have plants that relate to the different senses," says James Lyles, the YMCA's youth program coordinator. "We're hoping people use it for teaching. There are a lot of schools and day cares in this area."
Urban gardens seem to be especially appealing to kids.
Whenever Aguedo Delgado starts tackling a lot, neighborhood kids invariably show up with questions.
"They want to know what I'm doing and what I'm planting," he says. "They usually want to help, too. I've had as many as 16 kids at a time helping with a garden."
Delgado, a carpenter who has worked on farms and vineyards, has planted several lots in the last year in what he calls "guerilla gardening."
Instead of adopting a city-owned lot, Delgado targets privately owned lots in Harrisburg that are blighted and abandoned.
"I don't ask questions, I just do it," he says. "It'd be crazy for someone to get upset at me for cleaning up their lot. I keep it simple. I don't build anything. I just clean it up real good and plant vegetables and flowers."
One of Delgado's projects is an urban cornfield at the corner of 16th and Park streets. Another is a sunflower circle and flower beds at the corner of 15th and Walnut.
"It was a jungle there for the last three or four years," says Lucy Woolfork, who lives across from the sunflower circle. "People used to say, 'How can you stand to look at that?' But Aguedo has made it beautiful."
As with Wise and Rudy, Delgado has found that once he clears and plants a lot, it doesn't get dumped on.
"I'm more concerned about groundhogs than people," he says. "It's a mentality. If you have a vacant lot and no trash cans, people just throw stuff on the ground. If you give them a dirty atmosphere, they treat it like a dirty atmosphere. But if you clean it up, most people respect that."
Some projects have been spearheaded by groups, such as Penn State-trained master gardeners; civic groups (Harrisburg Young Professionals, Venture Club, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and more); college students and, in one case, a suburban private school.
"We've been very fortunate to have good relationships with Penn State and Messiah, Elizabethtown and other colleges that are ready and willing to do basic cleanup," Toepfer says. "We've also had a lot of area nurseries who have made donations and been very supportive of the efforts."
The key to outside efforts, though, is that someone in the community has to take responsibility for maintaining it. As any home gardener knows, an untended garden quickly reverts into a weedy mess.
"We always encourage a connection to the community," Toepfer says. "For sustainability, it makes a big difference."
Delgado tries to get people in the neighborhood to take over the gardens he plants so that he can move onto another blighted lot. When that happens, gardens seem to have a way of lifting a neighborhood's morale like few other improvements.
"You can definitely see in some areas where it takes on momentum," Toepfer says.
And it's the kind of a momentum that can spur other improvements, Wise says.
"One of the problems in a city is overcrowding," he says. "You just have too many people per square foot. There should always be land set aside for open space. Regardless of how poor you are, it's human to want to observe nature and hear birds singing."
George Weigel is a Pennsylvania certified horticulturist who covers gardening for The Patriot-News. He may be reached at 737-8530 or gweigel@paonline.com

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