Green Acres in Philly

Posted: July 21, 2014

FIVE YEARS AGO, Devon Bailey was in a dark place. The "ex-corner boy," who used to sell marijuana and cocaine on city streets, had lost his wife to breast cancer and didn't have a job or any money.

"I was in a downhill spiral, waking up every day, not having anything to do, except looking up at the ceiling," said Bailey, 36.

That was when he first saw strangers clearing a garbage-strewn lot across the street from his grandfather's North Philadelphia auto mechanic shop.

One day, as he watched those young adults - some college students, most of them poets, musicians or artists - try to build steps up an incline to a farming area, Bailey said to himself: "They don't know what they're doing." So he went over to help.

"Plus, it was kind of weird to have other people coming into your neighborhood and start cleaning up stuff without you and your neighbors being involved. So I just got involved."

The young people organized as Philly Urban Creators and now operate the "Life Do Grow" farm, on a two-acre former vacant lot at 11th and York streets, named after a boy's startled comment when he saw vegetables sprouting from seeds he had planted.

Today Philly Urban Creators will host its first "Hoodstock" festival, celebrating "Life and Living in an Urban Garden in North Philadelphia."

"Hoodstock," of course, is a nod to the "Woodstock" music festival, also on a farm, near Woodstock, N.Y., in 1969.

During the daylong event, from noon to 5 p.m., hundreds of volunteers are expected to help build a farmer's market stand and balcony gardens at the Fairhill public housing high-rise across the street. Afterward, there will be food, fun, cooking demonstrations, live music and exhibits of paintings and sculptures from young artists at the farm.

The daylong event will include breakfast at 8 a.m and community service from 9 a.m. to noon.

"It is a cultural event and an opportunity for us to show the world the work we've been doing and the plans we have," said Alex Epstein, Urban Creators' president and a co-founder.

Epstein, 23, came to Philadelphia from New York to attend Temple University, graduating in May. He and the others started the farm at the beginning of his sophomore year.

Co-founder Jeannine Kayembe, a poet and artist from Los Angeles, came here to work as a spoken-word artist.

"We are a community-based organization and a business," said Kayembe, 24, the executive and marketing directors. "We are activists who are using agriculture as a tool to help low-income communities empower themselves."

The group teaches teenagers and younger children that they can not only grow food to eat, but can also become entrepreneurs. It has also created smaller "community gardens" for several neighboring blocks.

The Urban Creators' farm sells vegetables to Iovine Brothers produce at Reading Terminal Market. And there are other products, such as shea butter creams, infused with farm-grown herbs.

Epstein met Kayembe at a poetry event at Temple, where she was performing. Epstein was there to recruit young people to travel to New Orleans with volunteers to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

In New Orleans, Epstein and Kayembe worked on an urban farm and thought about creating one in Philadelphia.

First they met with neighbors to get their input.

Then they made arrangements with the Village of Arts and Humanities, which held the lease on the lot that butts up against a stone embankment for the elevated Septa regional rail-line track.

The group visited urban farm workshops in Milwaukee and Chicago, and soon a bunch of city-raised kids, most in their 20s, had started their own farm.

Troi Lauren Nichols, 25, from North Philly, is in charge of creating cosmetic products from herbs from the farm.

Denzel Thompson, 19, also from Philly, earned national recognition as farm and production manager when he won the Teen Nick Halo award in 2013. He began working at the farm at age 14.

Golden Murray designs programs for people with disabilities. And there are elevated growing beds that are wheelchair accessible. The group also received a state-of-the-art greenhouse from the Magic Johnson Foundation.

Bailey learned construction skills from his father and grandfather and is site development manager. He built the classrooms and raised beds.

The farm has changed his life.

"I'm at peace," he said. "Just being on that land, day-in and day-out, brought me back from the darkness." He stopped thinking about himself and began helping his community, he said. And that brought him blessings.

"It really is a magical place. Every neighborhood in Philadelphia should have a place of serenity like this."

On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN

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