Green space in Philadelphia’s Chinatown is almost non-existent. According to Philadelphia brownfields expert, this area has the most impermeable land surface per square foot (the most paved over) of any of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.
Beginning in 2007, over the course of several years, AAU worked with students to get an absentee landowner to give them permission to clean up and transform a weed-filled, trash-strewn vacant lot next to the Folk Arts Cultural Treasures School. Gaining access to the land and making the land safe for gardening was a protracted processes as we worked to remediate the site by building retaining walls and covering the old soil with woodchips. Named the “Inch-by-Inch Garden”, the children and youth in AAU’s programs have contributed to this project by creating wooden signs to decorate our fence, decorated planters, sewed flags, and made mosaic stepping stones. They built raised beds, created bird and butterfly habitat, planted flowers and vegetables, benches and created a space for reflection and growth. During AAU’s summer programs, they continue to learn about heritage seeds, collected seeds from heirloom variety vegetables and from local varieties of flowers, and designed their own seed packets.
There are many lessons connected to justice that we teach through the garden. One of the lessons that children and youth have learned through the garden is that change takes time and that sometimes we are part of a long process of making change together with those who come before and those who come after us. Another is that building a garden and growing traditional herbs and vegetables, are all aspects of working to create a physically, culturally, and spiritually healthy community. And another is that all Asian cultures have strong ties to land and traditions of growing. Learning to grow can be a skill and a practice that connects generations that have crossed oceans.