In April, the corner of Hires Avenue and New Market Street was just a vacant demolition site sitting sad and barren in front of the City Clerk Office in Salem City. Today, a border of wooden shipping palettes—stacked, hammered, and painted into 4 foot high raised beds of soil—surround a tidy oasis of greenery called the Salem City Community Garden.
Salem residents Krystal Hall and Britney Lillya first conceived of the garden after signing up to volunteer for similar projects at the First Annual Philly Farm and Food Fest in April. “Britney and I found ourselves signing up for other community gardens that weren’t in our community,” Hall says. “We thought, ‘Why not do it in our town?’”
With the support of City Council, Lillya’s connections at the Salem County Sunbeam, where she works as a photographer, and a notice posted on Facebook, initial support for the project far exceeded the pair’s expectations. “When we did our build, there were probably 30 people out here,” Hall says. “ I was really surprised that day how many people came out to help.”
Now, the gardeners harvest long hots, roma and regular tomatoes, eggplant, okra, and bell peppers that they have yet to find homes for. Charitable purposes like Meals on Wheels and educational programs have been considered, but the group is still pondering, wanting to ensure that the garden’s effects reach as far into the community as possible.
I can appreciate the extent to which the Salem Garden blurs the rural and the urban: the garden is a piece of the agrarian in the middle of “Salem City,” which is itself a semi-urban island in a sea of farmland. Surprisingly, as fellow founding gardener Ken Blades explained, the reality of Salem is not one of a town in which farmland and city always blend graciously. Rather, a cultural divide exists between some of Salem’s city-dwelling and farm-dwelling residents that gives some incentive to critique the community garden project.
“People [from the country] were asking us when we started this, ‘Why would you want to do that?’” Blades says. “There’s a lot of negativity out there.”
Of course, every well-meaning project always has its senseless detractors, but what about residents who feel a little too welcome to the garden’s produce?
“Sometimes people would come with shopping bags and just take whatever they wanted,” Hall says. “We’d prefer it if they did that differently, but…”
Blades completes Hall’s thought for both of them. “I’m over it,” he says.
Over the winter, the group hopes to secure access to a public greenhouse, but its plans don’t stop there. “We’re not big enough to be a nonprofit yet, but it might be a future goal,” Hall explains. “We’ve just got to figure out what we’re doing with the food first.”
A last resort, of course, is to donate it to the causes of this vegetably destitute blogger, who is now one bag full of eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers less hungry.