Greetings from Camden, NJ!
CFET was in the news, as you might have seen, on August 22nd. Kevin Riordan, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, spent some time with Ari Rosenberg, our farmer, and the Junior Farmers, and wrote about his experience. You can find the article here. The Emerald Street Garden is a wonderful place, as those of you who’ve visited know. But perhaps you don’t know the history of the space, so I thought to share with you the story of the Emerald Street Garden as I’ve come to learn it from those who have been around the neighborhood much longer than me. (I’m recalling this from memory, from the spoken word, so for all you historians out there, don’t hold me to every date here.) The gist is enough, no?
There once was a bakery that covered one of the lots, namely the one at the opposite side of the space from the greenhouse. An explosion razed it in the early 80s, I believe, and the family moved to the Black Horse Pike in Haddon Heights. It is now known as Del-Buono’s Bakery! It is nice to know that there is still baking going on at this spot, though just north of it, in the bread oven! The other lots, I believe, were homes that came down for various reasons. Sometime in the late 1980s Fr. Michael Doyle and Sacred Heart Church, with tremendous help from Joe Balzano at the South Jersey Port Corporation, transformed these lots into a garden, and put the wrought iron fence in place (that was Joe’s doing). Joe also created the star stone mosaic in the middle, and put that giant boulder there. Fr. Michael Doyle shared some photos of this event with me and I share them with you. (Joe Balzano looks quite young here, so perhaps this happened even earlier than I’m remembering.)
In any event, the space became a garden, tended by Sacred Heart parishioners and by women from the neighborhood. It was a flower garden, as the first picture suggests. Lots of Marigolds were planted there, and this connected to the August 15th feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a feast that is celebrated at Sacred Heart with great feeling. On this Sunday, marigolds are harvested from the Emerald Street Garden for the women to wear for the two church services on that Sunday. Also, garlands of marigolds are made for the statue of Mary, the Mother of God, on the south side of the church from marigolds brought by parishioners. This custom has been continuous for at least 25 years, if not 30, and the Emerald Street Garden has been the source of most of those marigolds to this day. You might wonder, why marigolds? Take a look at the word: Mary’s Gold. Mary has often been depicted with the color of gold, or the colors of marigolds (yellow, orange, etc.). Roman Catholics, at least, pay attention to details like that!!!
In 2002 Andrea Ferich came to Camden and walked around the neighborhood with Michael Doyle, who tells her that vegetables can be grown in this neighborhood. Over the next few years, Andrea gains financial support from the trash-to-steam incinerator to build a greenhouse on Emerald Street. This greenhouse is built by Don Harle, the Sacred Heart Church facilities manager (the one almost singlehandedly responsible for the renovation of the church!). In the meantime, the property on Emerald Street passed into the possession of the Heart of Camden, Inc. (HoC), except for the lot in the middle with the giant star and boulder. (In Camden, if you own both sides of a lot that has been abandoned, you effectively own that lot!) So, with the greenhouse built, Andrea, who worked part time for the Heart of Camden at this point, turned the Emerald Street Garden into a vegetable garden, still growing the marigolds needed for Assumption. (They also are effective pest controllers, as the pests don’t like the smell of marigolds!), and she took over the Liney Ditch park community garden, in terms of maintaining it. In 2009 Andrea came to work for the Center for Environmental Transformation. CFET adopted a lot on Viola Street, that has fruit trees and some vegetables, and Andrea began the native plant nursery over by the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) administration building. Also, in 2009, the properties on Emerald Street were bought by CFET from HoC.
I had said that the Emerald Street gardens had been tended by Sacred Heart women and community women. In the early 2000s this started to fail, and the gardens simply sat there, until Andrea came along. Fortunately, mother nature took care of the marigolds as they seeded themselves year after year, to supply the women of the church with their marigolds for the feast of the Assumption. When Andrea took over, she focused on bringing youth into the gardens and so we have been doing that ever since. Several years ago, Andrea started to save the seeds from the marigolds, once their bloom was off. She would bring those marigold seeds to Sacred Heart on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, on December 8th. If you recall, the feast of the Immaculate Conception was about the conception of Mary in her mother’s womb, conceived without original sin. Andrea brought the seeds to be blessed on that day, seeds that would be planted to produce the blooms that would be used on the following August 15th, the feast of the Assumption, when this woman whose conception was commemorated on December 8th is assumed into heaven body and soul. (Again, Catholics pay attention to details, or at least Catholics who’ve worshiped at Sacred Heart Church long enough!). We will continue this practice of saving the marigold seeds and having them blessed on December 8th.
That is the history of the Emerald Street Garden. It is in a city, Camden, that has more community gardens per person than any other city of its size in the United States, so I’m told! Why is this garden different? CFET is a faith-based institution, whose mission is deeply rooted in a catholic view of the world, namely that matter matters. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we grow our food in, the animals we tend for food, and the people we share this planet with. All matter to the Creator God who has placed in human hands responsibility to be good stewards of matter. In our education of people we talk about sustainability, about food systems, about nutrition, about polluting industries, about the disproportionate burden that poor communities, and communities of color, like those in Camden, bear so that wealthier communities can live a lifestyle without having to see, or smell, the costs of that lifestyle. It is not just about growing food to feed people. There are lots of non-profits that do that, and thank God for that. It is also about creating sustainable relationships between people in the suburbs and the people who live in Camden. It is also about creating the opportunity to develop in the young people of Waterfront South a set of skills that can be transferred to whatever domain of employment they seek to pursue. The students who went to Los Angeles for the Rooted in Community conference met their peers from around the country, young people who are, yes, learning the skills associated with raising healthy food, but who are also learning that they have a voice and they have power to work for change. Sustainability is a pointless exercise if the goal is to continue to live as we’ve lived for years, just with a smaller cost to the planet’s resources. Sustainability is achieved when all people matter, when all people are included in decisions about how we are going to bear the economic and environmental costs of the lifestyles we choose to live, when the environment is not treated as a mere source of human satisfaction, but as what it is, the life support system for this planet, one that pre-existed us humans, and, in all likelihood, will continue on once we homo sapiens have passed from the global scene, unless we succeed in destroying it first! What’s different? The vision that powers the Junior Farmer program and the gardens and the native plant nursery. It is a vision rooted in a belief that matter matters, that all matter matters, including people, and so our work includes empowering people, young and old, poor and rich, suburban and urban, to develop a way of thinking about life, economics, politics and the environment that values all things as important, not because some constitution says so, or because an environmental philosopher offers a compelling argument, but, for us, because the God of Creation would have us live differently, in a way that mirrors God’s response to creation, recorded in the first chapter of Genesis: And God saw all that he had created and he found it to be very good! (cf. Genesis 1:31).
The Emerald Street Garden is the place where we immerse ourselves in the goodness of creation, sinking our hands deep into the soil, and tending to the fragile fruits that come forth from that soil. It is holy work; it is one way in which we can join God in the ongoing act of creation. I invite you to visit us, get your hands dirty, marvel at the bounty of God’s creation. It is good; indeed, it is very good!
I hope to see you at the Tom Chapin concert on Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 3PM. More details can be found on our events page.
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
President, Board of Trustees