Home Grown: Life Do Grow Turns North Philly’s Empty Lots Into Urban Gardens

Temple students and area residents are making a real statement—and growing yummy produce—in forgotten spaces.

Students and community members work on cultivating the land at Life Do Grow’s urban farm at 11th and Dakota streets. Photo courtesy of Life Do Grow

It’s difficult not to notice Philadelphia’s vacant lot problem, as streets in nearly every neighborhood are dotted with them. While some see them as an eyesore and a problem, others see them as an opportunity. At least, that’s what a group of Temple students and community members from North Philly saw when they began turning the vacant lot at 11th and Dakota streets into an educational urban farm.

A project of the urban agriculture and community organization group Philadelphia Urban Creators (PUC), Life Do Grow is a fully operating urban farm that works with community members, former criminal offenders, students, local schools, businesses and community organizations to produce sustainably grown local produce and empower communities to grow their own food.

“Over time, it’s really evolved into more of a classroom,” says Alex Epstein, 22, outreach coordinator and resource manager for Life Do Grow and a student at Temple University. Life Do Grow spreads its mission by training people in urban farming techniques and showing them how it’s possible to grow their own food to eat and even sell to others.

In 2010, Epstein and few of PUC’s other founding members traveled to New Orleans and saw the changes that could be made through food justice. They learned from other organizations what they wanted and didn’t want to do and then began planning a way to implement a sustainable urban farm in Philadelphia. “We’re pulling from a whole lot of different models,” Epstein says, though the farm in Philadelphia is unique in many different ways.

“We made sure we were community-based first, before we started breaking ground and planting,” says Jeaninne Kayembe, 23, marketing manager for Life Do Grow and a freelance artist. After about eight months of careful planning, fundraising and organizing, the group was ready to clear the lot and begin building the farm.

Community involvement has made the Life Do Grow family a diverse group—children as young as eight years old, teenagers and adults from the community, Temple students and former criminals have all gotten in on the action. This diversity has caused the group’s vision to continue to evolve. “We started from nothing, absolutely nothing,” says Denzel Thompson, 18, farm manager for Life Do Grow and community leader. “It’s just going to keep getting bigger and bigger.”

One way in which Life Do Grow is expanding is by creating partnerships with businesses and organizations. Recently, they partnered up with Fuel eatery in Center City. Fuel donated $1,000 for Life Do Grow to build a greenhouse to grow produce. Fuel is able to take what they want from the greenhouse and use it in their food.

The group is also looking forward to working with Magic Johnson. The Magic Johnson Foundation has donated 30 feet of hoop house and solar panels to Life Do Grow and members anticipate working with Johnson in the near future.

Life Do Grow is beginning to work with schools to start gardens on school property and educate students on how to grow their own food. What they grow will be used to supplement school lunches, making them healthier and more sustainably produced than current school-lunch options. “If we want to change the way school lunches are, have kids grow their own food,” says Epstein.

Perhaps one of the best things about Life Do Grow is the way it has helped to dissolve some of the tension between the Temple University community and residents of the surrounding neighborhood. The urban farm is a project that was created for and by members of both groups in collaboration. “I don’t know of anything like that anywhere else,” Epstein says. He explains how many students—himself included—hear nothing but horror stories about Temple’s neighborhood when they arrive as freshmen. Life Do Grow makes a positive statement about the neighborhood and shows that the two groups of people can work together towards a common goal.

While they say it’s hard work, members of Life Do Grow find the urban farm project extremely rewarding. “I feel like it gave everyone purpose.  It gave us a job,” Kayembe says. “We needed something to do that was positive.”

As for the future, Epstein says they hope to expand Life Do Grow production to build capital and sustain itself, so if they never get another grant again they can keep going forward with their mission. Part of that mission is to create a more sustainable model of food production for Philadelphia. “I would like to use this as a device to teach people that you don’t have to take three buses to the supermarket,” Epstein says. “It can empower communities to develop themselves.”

“We want to put a garden on every lot,” Thompson says. With models like this, perhaps Philadelphia will see its vacant lot problem solved by a system of city-grown produce.

This article first appeared in the Liberty City Press.