Pioneer community gardener Libby Goldstein gives up her vegetable plot

Libby Goldstein walks in the Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden. When she founded the site in 1976, community gardens were a political act, more about feeding the poor than growing heirloom tomatoes. Now, "she will be dearly missed," says the garden's current president, Carolyn Scott.
Libby Goldstein walks in the Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden. When she founded the site in 1976, community gardens were a political act, more about feeding the poor than growing heirloom tomatoes. Now, "she will be dearly missed," says the garden's current president, Carolyn Scott. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 24, 2011

Libby Goldstein can't stand the "3-H's" - hazy, hot, humid - for even one more summer. And quite frankly - which, quite frankly, is all this firecracker can be - she's sick of the politics.

So after 35 years of intimate involvement, Goldstein has retired from the Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden at Third and Christian Streets, which she founded in 1976. Back then, community gardens were a political act, more about feeding the poor than growing heirloom tomatoes.

Unlike hundreds of other gardens from that era, this one survives and thrives - in large measure because of Goldstein, who is both revered as icon and mentor and remembered as "pot-stirrer" and "pain in the a--."

Now, Miss All-of-the-Above has given up her vegetable plot, though not her key to the gate. She'll still wander in to give advice and prune the fig trees, but other than that, Goldstein insists she's gone.

"I miss being able to grow my own vegetables," she says wistfully, before dropping this: "and I miss being able to find new and weird s--- to grow."

Goldstein swears a lot and smokes constantly, even in the garden. She sticks out her tongue when certain names come up in conversation and seems not to care if she offends. Somehow, she endears.

"I tried to talk her out of it, but her mind was made up. She will be dearly missed," says Carolyn Scott, garden president, who found Goldstein intimidating for several years after they met.

"She's very direct. She can be difficult. She does not mince words," says Scott, who's been verbally minced a time or two. "And she can be like a dog with a bone."

Good thing, or the garden - built on the site of the old Henry Berk Elementary School - would never have happened.

Scott also describes Goldstein - former director of the Penn State Urban Gardening Program, Daily News garden columnist, and president of the Philadelphia Food and Agriculture Task Force - as "a pot-stirrer who would get a meeting all stirred up, and then leave."

It may sound crazy that a bunch of gardeners could get "all stirred up." Over what, for heaven's sake?

Plenty.

Goldstein is fine with the underground irrigation system - beats lugging hoses to and from the fire hydrant. She likes the solar electric panels, too. But, come on, a composting toilet?

"Go home if you have to go," she says.

Goldstein thinks there are too many flowers in what should be a food garden, but the plots overflow with colorful clematis and hollyhocks, yarrow and lilies.

Goldstein's no fan of the "honey house," either. She deems it "seriously gross, totally unnecessary," but others pushed for it so honey from the garden's hives could be extracted and bottled on site instead of lugged to Delaware.

"These people don't seem to know what they're about. We're a garden, for heaven's sake," Goldstein says of the current crop of decision-makers, who nonetheless were among about 40 friends who celebrated "our Libby" in the garden on Tuesday. City Council had declared it Libby Goldstein Day, and there were toasts and hip-hip-hoorays and gifts, and much praise for Goldstein's contribution to community gardens in the city.

"I might have to cry now," she said, but it never happened. "What am I going to say, 'Hail and farewell'?" she remarked later.

It was a beautiful night in the garden, which occupies an organic 2/5-acre, has 66 plots and 84 members, along with seven beehives containing 25,000 bees each; an orchard with cherry, apple, pear, and fig trees; a gazebo; the under-construction honey house; and said composting toilet, which took two years of contentious discussion to approve.

"It's the cutest toilet. It has a window box with curtains. You'd have no idea it was an outhouse," says longtime gardener Irene Scarborough, who grows chard, collards, beans, tomatoes, garlic, onions, potatoes, broccoli, and peppers in her plot.

Scarborough describes Goldstein as "outspoken, but very truthful, not deceiving," which echoes what Goldstein's friend and fellow gardener Rochelle Manfra thinks: "Libby knows a lot about gardening and she's always correct, right on the spot. She doesn't sugarcoat anything, but it's never out of malice or meanness or superiority. It's just pure knowledge."

Newcomers don't always appreciate Goldstein's volunteering that knowledge, Manfra says. One gardener cursed when Goldstein suggested she pick her greens before they got bitter. Another - unwisely - ignored Goldstein's warning about land-grabbing bronze fennel.

"If you understand Libby, which is not hard to do, you know she doesn't have a mean bone in her body," Manfra says, "unless you get her riled or you're wrong about something.

" 'Wrong,' " she explains, "is not caring for the vegetables, not weeding or mulching or being sustainable. That really irks her and she'll say something about it."

As the daughter of the late M.H. Goldstein, a Socialist labor lawyer, Goldstein would seem to come by her outspokenness and political instincts naturally.

She was a Slavic linguistics major at the University of Michigan. Later, she studied anthropology with Margaret Mead, which was probably good preparation for rallying neighbors for a garden and then whipping local, state, and national pols into line to make it happen.

It wasn't until 1991 that the feds, who owned the garden site, finally deeded it to the city, to be kept green in perpetuity.

Through all those years, the garden has reflected the neighborhood around it. With continuing gentrification, accelerated by the 2000 demolition of the notorious Southwark public housing project, the membership today is far more affluent and less diverse. "Another reason I left," Goldstein grumps.

"Libby is gruff - like a city, or at least Philly," suggests gardener Jed Campbell, who recalls Mayor Ed Rendell's greeting at a garden barbecue one year: "I'm here because Libby told me to come."

There's no denying Goldstein's impact on this garden, which has as many camps and controversies as Congress. But gardener Mark Raymond credits that as one reason it survives. "It's because so many people are so passionate about it," he says.

And so, during a recent walk along the wood-chipped paths, it was to be expected that Goldstein would instruct gardener Sylvester Stone to snip the flower heads off his dill or risk herbal invasion. "I'll do that today," he vowed.

Nor did it shock Gwyn MacDonald, a 15-year veteran here, when Goldstein groused: "I see people are putting wrong things in the brush pile again" and "Why do people feel they must plant flowers in here?"

MacDonald simply smiled. "Things change," she said.


Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

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Video: Get a taste of Libby Goldstein's salty character at philly.com/libby.


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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