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North Philly farmers broker truce with PHA

The Peace Park in Sharswood is in talks to legally acquire land they have occupied for years.
Yoga teacher Malika Rowland strikes a pose with two young disciples at the North Philly Peace Park. (Sam Newhouse)

A long-standing dispute between a group of semi-outlaw urban farmers and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) seems to be coming to a close.

The North Philly Peace Park and PHA confirmed recently that they are in talks to allow the Park to acquire the PHA land they have essentially been squatting on since 2015, using it to grow fresh produce for free distribution to their food desert community.

The PHA"is currently working with the Peace Park on an agreement that will ensure the park will be able to continue to serve the Blumberg/Sharswood community for the long term," a spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday.

The truce comes after at least three years of conflict. Started on a vacant lot smack dab in the middle of plans for new housing, the original Peace Park was fenced off by the PHA in late 2014. The gardeners packed up and moved a few blocks down to another vacant plot at 22nd and Jefferson, also owned by the PHA, where they've been gardening and holding community events ever since. While negotiations with the PHA are still very preliminary, Park members are more confident than ever about their future.  

"Things were rocky in the past, but we're looking forward to a good relationship," said Pili X, director of community partnerships for the North Philly Peace Park. He said the park's newfound "land security" is inspiring even more ambitious programs and plans for the park: "People haven't really seen anything yet."

In its few years of existence, the Peace Park has gotten accolades from former First Lady and fresh-produce advocate Michelle Obama (a trellis at the park was erected in her honor); UPenn's PennDesign program has helped contribute eco-friendly designs for future spaces; and the Art Museum recently donated a reproduction of Diego Rivera's "Sugar Cane" to the park.

Beyond doubling their garden space to grow more fresh food, the Park is hoping to amp up educational programming, X said, and creating products from hot sauce to wood-chips and mulch on site that can be sold to support the park.

One new addition is Tynetta's Garden, named in honor of a beloved community member who recently passed away. Member Donna Bradley cleared a trash strewn-lot adjacent to the park to create a woman-and-children only garden.

"I just want to bring moments of time for regeneration to women and children," Bradley explained. "It's a place where we can relax for a minute, and maybe let's grow some food."

Another new member is Mailka Rowland, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in Iraq and now is teaching yoga and mindfulness at the park through her class, the #PeaceHealthWealthJawn.

"Being able to attain peace of mind is so important," Rowland said. "We used to be dealing with the bear in the woods. Now its work, traffic, kids. ... Fast is not always better."

The PHA said they will "continue to support and partner with organizations that are invested in the neighborhood," and on paper, the Park's work aligns with the goals of the PHA's Blumberg-Sharswood Revitalization project, which has reopened Robert Vaux school, built new housing, and partnered with Habitat for Humanity.

"We are giving PHA credit for seeing this space as a cornerstone of this community," X said, before quoting Jesus: "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."