A community garden grows at Pleasant Playground

by Patrick Cobbs
Posted 4/15/21

East Mt. Airy gardeners came out Saturday, April 10, to support a new community garden at Pleasant Playground. New, but with roots that go back 38 years.

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A community garden grows at Pleasant Playground


East Mt. Airy gardeners came out Saturday, April 10, to support a new community garden at Pleasant Playground. New, but with roots that go back 38 years.

About 40 locals cleaned and prepared the corner of the park surrounding the 50-plus bed garden to help get it ready for its first full growing season after a mid-summer and mid-pandemic start last year.

“The people and the energy of people taking control of their future, that’s what I’m most excited about,” U.S. Representative Dwight Evans said when he saw the new garden. “This really gives me hope.”

Evans arrived with a group from the Philadelphia Streets Department in support of Philly Spring Cleanup, Saturday’s city-wide beautification program that included the garden cleanup.

The playground runs along Pleasant Street, between Chelten Avenue and Boyer Street. Garden organizer Joseph Johnson recalled that the new garden occupies the site where a previous recreation center used to stand. In 2013, Pleasant Playground got a new rec center located on Chew Avenue, but Johnson remembered the one at the back corner of the park, on the Boyer side, because he was there so often as a teen beginning in 1983.

“I spent most of my days there playing basketball, baseball. Sort of like the Will Smith song,” he recalled.

He was inspired by John Searight, the playground director at the time, who always seemed to know how to help. So inspired, when he got to Temple after high school his first major was parks, recreation and management because his dream was to one day do work that created a sense of support and belonging in the same way Searight had done for him and other East Mt. Airy young people.

“But life doesn’t always go how we plan it,” Johnson explained. Midway through college, he found himself with a child on the way.

He talked to his mother about what to do. He wanted to take a path that provided immediate benefits and job security. He joined the Marine Corps in 1990, but he was torn—he still had the dream.

“And my mother said, ‘you know, you’re not serving the community, you’re serving the country. You have a larger mission now,’” he recalled.

It was a 23-year career in the Marines, and over that time, life took root. That included five children, two grandchildren, and eventually retirement and a realization he had a deep interest in learning how to grow food.

In 2015, Johnson was living in New Orleans, where he had last been stationed. It would be the year of his father’s death. He was eager to reinvent himself for a second act in life, and he learned about the prestigious Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, a commune-like research and demonstration permaculture program in Sonoma California. He applied, not thinking he would be accepted, but on the day of his father’s death he learned not only was he accepted, but he’d earned a scholarship to attend.

He spent the better part of a year in California, also completing a six-month apprenticeship at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz. During his time out west, instructors kept pressing their students for how they would put their knowledge to work.

“And that’s when it hit me,” he said. “Pleasant Playground. Build a community garden at Pleasant Playground.” He moved back home to his father’s house and got to work in his old neighborhood.

There was community interest from the beginning in 2016, but not enough organizational heft to get things off the ground. So Johnson used his G.I. Bill and channeled his energy into completing his degree at La Salle.

Then, in January 2019, he brought the idea back to a community meeting, and the support was loud and clear. Neighbors had developed a playground advisory council, so there was a structure in place to help move things forward, and other neighbors, like Dimka Braswell, Bryce Rowe, Bonnie Zuckerman, and Jean-Claire Fitschen became directly involved.

Community planning and permissions through the city took the better part of a year, and the garden was ready to get started just as city shutdowns took effect in 2020. Determined not to let the effort wither on the vine, the garden committee launched a Gofundme, which afforded enough for the garden’s soft launch last summer, and now has netted $25,000 from more than a hundred contributors, including a $6500 windfall from prominent local businessman, Bob Elfant.

Now, as pandemic restrictions are loosening and the weather warms, there’s no mistaking the enthusiasm for the new community garden.

“We worked for two years in the rec center. It didn’t just happen. We planned this,” said hydroponics engineer Bryce Rowe, who plans to teach community classes in the garden he was helping to prepare on Saturday. “It feels great.”

Garden committee fundraising chair Jean-Claire Fitschen, said she believes the garden will be an engine for more good things at Pleasant Playground, possibly including an outdoor kitchen and an effort to revamp the basketball courts.

“We’ve built some muscle for fundraising,” she said. “We’re envisioning this really growing and including other types of resources for the community.”

And recent East Mt. Airy transplant Dimka Braswell, a self-described firebrand when it comes to causes related to equity and food justice, has been more than impressed with the thoughtful, welcoming community that has cropped up around the garden. She noted productive conversations related to class and race, and several gardeners whose crops are donated to feeding efforts.

“Having those conversations and putting them into action gave us this garden center,” she said, spreading her gloved hands to encompass the work going on around her. “This is definitely a working tool for change.”

It’s taken two years of solid neighborhood work to get the new Pleasant Playground community garden to bear fruit, but for Joe Johnson, this story has taken more than three decades to tell. He’s had a family. He’s served his country with a long career in the Marines. He’s finished his college degree. But there was always that dream, planted young because of an early mentor. Now he’s doing that too.

Is it a good feeling?

“‘Good’ doesn’t fully explain it,” he said. “It came full circle… To see something grow from seed and start fruiting, to see that process and know that you were a part of that. That’s empowering, and that’s what I wanted to bring to the community.”


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