Welcome to “What ever happened with,” Billy Penn’s ongoing series that will look at older stories that may have been forgotten about or otherwise not followed up on. Whether it’s a delayed development project or an unsolved murder mystery, “What ever happened with” strives to tell you what’s up with that Philly thing you might have forgotten about.
Last summer, big, yellow weeds grew so high on the property once known as the Marathon Farm they were as tall as Brewerytown resident Amanda Bock. She stands about five feet. Not too tall for a person but very tall for a weed, especially for weeds at this spot on 27th and Master streets in Brewerytown, for a project that began with so much fanfare.
The Marathon Farm project started in 2011. Philadelphia’s Marathon Grill was investing in a new way to get the city involved in supplying produce to its local restaurants in what was hailed as “a model that could be replicated throughout the city.” Mayor Michael Nutter even appeared at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Within three years, plans had fallen apart, and Marathon Grill didn’t renew its lease for the property with the city. Worse, by last summer, some of the city-owned plots of land on which the garden was situated were going up for sheriff’s sale. The possibility of developers sweeping in and building condos was not remote.
“The fate was really unknown,” Bock says.
Not anymore. The abandoned mess of Marathon Urban Farm is now the Brewerytown Garden. It is a place where neighborhood residents can purchase their own lots and where gardeners tend to fruits and vegetables that are sold back to the community. With the support of Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation, the property’s ownership was transferred from the city’s Public Property Department to the Parks Department, which ensures the space’s preservation and helps with funding. Developers won’t have the opportunity to buy the property anytime soon.
The garden features 73 beds, 63 of which have been rented by individuals and 10 that are tended for a community farmstand that takes place every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to noon. The beds, most of which are 12-by-4 feet, cost 50 to 75 cents per square foot for this year. All of them are occupied, and 10 people are already on a waiting list for the future. Anyone who purchases a lot must also contribute five hours of service per month to the garden or activities associated with it.
“We love this community, and we love what this community has to offer to us,” says resident and Brewerytown Garden board member Blair Shaw. “And we wanted to give this to the community.”
He’s lived in Brewerytown for eight years. During the period in which Marathon leased the property, Shaw says he didn’t even know about the farm. The Marathon Farm was split into an area where products used by the restaurant were grown and harvested and another part for a community farmstand. For Brewerytown Garden board member Suzanne Wilson, it never felt like Marathon did enough outreach.
“Last summer it became obvious there was no engagement from Marathon,” she says, “and we didn’t want to see the garden go.”
Cary Borish, president/managing partner of Marathon Grill, originally agreed to an interview then did not respond to multiple interview attempts.
The transformation to Brewerytown Garden began last year when resident and Brewerytown Garden board member Geoff Schulz contacted Shaw about a post he wrote for the website NextDoor about sharing crops. Schulz immediately thought of the area left behind by Marathon.
“I said there’s a space over there that’s gone to hell in a handbag,” Schulz remembers.
Soon, several people from the community joined, including Schulz, Shaw, Bock, Wilson, Sharon Hildebrand and Jeannie Brooks. They pulled the weeds, mostly by their hands. They repaired and reconstructed garden beds. They wanted to preserve natural beauty and promote a healthy lifestyle, something that became more important when a nearby grocery store closed last winter. Residents of Brewerytown had few places to go for fresh produce.
The investment in the land came with a risk because portions of the property were already going up for sheriff’s sale. Last fall, the group started meeting with Council President Darrell Clarke’s office. The conversation shifted from there to Elisa Ruse-Esposito, the Parks Department’s FarmPhilly manager. She helped facilitate the transfer the property to the Parks Department during the winter. Shaw also credited the neighborhoods-focused Philly Rising program and the Philadelphia Horticultural Society with helping in the rebuilding effort. The city’s Mural Arts program provided mulch for the garden this spring.
The Brewerytown Garden’s rules for growing are simple: it must be organic and must be legal. People who purchase the beds must live in Brewerytown, Sharswood or the northern parts of Fairmount. Right now, the garden is blooming with onions, okra, corn, tomatoes, herbs, lettuce, five different kinds of kale and much more.
“I almost live here,” Brooks says. “It’s a lovely place to be.”
Brewerytown Garden, which is a licensed nonprofit, plans to work with the Parks Department, possibly partnering for events with a recreation center located across the street. The garden features a stage, and board members say they want to have jazz concerts, as well as other events to entertain the community, maybe a Halloween party for children this fall.
And there will be plenty of fruits and vegetables, to grow and eat. This is the first growing season, and the people who built Brewerytown Garden can’t wait to share more of the harvest.
“Everyone,” Bock says, “is waiting on tomatoes.”