Rally supports Camden Children's Garden

At the rally (from left), Dai'onni Russell, 6; Sandra Meneces; Bryanna Graham, 12.
At the rally (from left), Dai'onni Russell, 6; Sandra Meneces; Bryanna Graham, 12. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 14, 2013

Holding signs reading "No Garden? No Fresh Food," "Where Will We Go?", and several that read, "Save the Camden Children's Garden," more than 100 people rallied Tuesday to muster support in the waterfront garden's fight against a March 31 eviction notice from the state.

The protesters had planned to march from the garden to City Hall, but were spared that trip. Mayor Dana L. Redd and several City Council members went to the rally to add support.

The garden, Redd and others said, must stay where it is.

"We have our challenges," Redd said, listing education, public safety, and others. "But we also have our assets . . . and this garden is one of those."

State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), who also attended the rally and has been trying to mediate the dispute, said in an interview that with the two sides expected to meet next week, the state no longer was insisting on its eviction deadline.

In a letter last month, the state Department of Treasury told the garden's longtime executive director, Michael Devlin, to remove its property from the plot.

The state proposed that the Camden City Garden Club, which runs the garden, could rent a few offices and one greenhouse but that the plot be transferred to its for-profit neighbor, Adventure Aquarium.

Though the state has not disclosed the aquarium's plans for the site, a Treasury spokesman has said that the aquarium's planned expansion would be additional economic development for the city.

The state's notice came after three years of fruitless negotiations to get the garden to move.

The two sides disagree on who owns the land. The state claims ownership; Devlin says the land belongs to the city. Deed and tax records are unclear.

Norcross said he was bringing together Devlin and Treasury officials on Tuesday, and who has rights to the land will be among the issues that will be discussed.

"The state has always been a partner of the Camden Children's Garden and we want to see that relationship continue," Norcross said. "We want to work on a long-term solution."

With "cooler heads" prevailing on both sides, he said, the state is no longer pushing March 31 as the eviction date.

A call and e-mail query to a Treasury spokesman were not returned by Tuesday evening.

At the rally, North Camden resident Carmen Gonzalez said she does not have many places to take her 4-year-old daughter Ayanna Negron to play.

"The park across Molina [School] is not safe," Gonzalez said, noting that drug dealers frequent it.

The Children's Garden is a safe haven for Ayanna, a place where she doesn't have to ask why police are on her street, Gonzalez said.

"All she talks about is the cops outside," she said.

Once the officials were done with their speeches, children ran to their favorite parts of the garden.

Ayanna tugged at her mother, asking to go see the large dinosaur, her favorite exhibit.

"We don't have anything here" for children's recreation, Gonzalez said of the city. "So to be taking one of the few things we have is not right."

Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow.

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