Reviving Greensgrow: A Year After Collapse, a New Vision for Urban Agriculture
The New Kensington Community Development Corp. is working to revive the farm, which was a community resource for 25 years before it succumbed amid labor unrest, infrastructure concerns, and financial disarray.
In the year since Greensgrow suddenly closed last July, the staff, volunteers and community members who supported it have been left to lament its absence and wonder what it might become. With a plan to revive the land on East Cumberland Street as a community resource for food and education, New Kensington Community Development Corp. is now seeking to fill the void Greensgrow left behind.
When the farm fell apart—amid labor unrest, concerns about workplace safety, and financial disarray—the land that had been its home for the past 25 years, which had been leased to Greensgrow by NKCDC, was returned to the organization’s control. That has set the stage for a rebirth that aims to restore much of what made the farm special in the first place.
How an urban gem collapsed
At its peak, Greensgrow was a community staple and a leader in Philadelphia’s urban agriculture movement. In a three-quarter-acre, trash-strewn lot previously a Superfund site, co-founders Mary Seton Corboy and Tom Sereduk started a farm in 1997 that soon blossomed into something worth celebrating. It sold flowers and plants to the neighborhood, hosted a CSA that fed families across the city, and eventually spun off a West Philadelphia satellite farm. In 2010, the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia named Greensgrow its Sustainable Business of the Year. Corboy was later named a Sustainable Ag Leader by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
But after Corboy died in 2016, Greensgrow struggled to maintain its success. The farm went through five directors in the next six years, ran into issues with the state over uncollected taxes, and watched revenues decline drastically. Workers at the farm raised concerns about animal neglect—Greensgrow had been home to turtles, chickens, and Milkshake, a pet pig- and sought to form a union to address their own inadequate working conditions. Last July, following a check fraud scheme, the nonprofit’s executive director, Erin Mooney, said the farm had no choice but to cease operations.
Lindsay Blade, who was a part-time Greensgrow employee, said the farm collapse was “unexpected and shocking.” Its closure brought with it a loss of history, a loss of hope, and a loss of an important resource for healthy food and green space in an urban environment, she said.
State Rep. Joseph C. Hohenstein, who met with staff in the fallout from Greensgrow’s closure, said the lack of support and financial flexibility that doomed the farm were attributable, in part, to “an institutional structure that had been built around a particular person that had difficulty surviving when that person wasn’t there.”
Envisioning the next chapter of Greensgrow
Under the direction of executive director Bill McKinney and vice president of programs Roberta Dubuclet, NKCDC is restoring the property with the expectation that it will be up and running again as an urban farm by spring 2025, if not sooner, and is in the process of hiring an urban farmer to run the operation. Dubuclet said she and her colleagues are in the “first phase of reimagining what this space will look like.”
Their vision includes maintaining the land as an urban agricultural hub, in keeping with Corboy’s mission. Dubuclet, who joined NKCDC last fall after spending 27 years in New Orleans running programs in social service arenas, including operating community gardens, said she wants the land to help address food insecurity in the surrounding neighborhoods while also offering nutritional education and serving as a community kitchen.
“I see it being not just an urban agricultural farm but also a place of healing, a place of coming together for Fishtown and Kensington,” Dubuclet said.
NKCDC gathered neighbors for an Earth Day celebration in April and a community meeting in June to discuss the path forward for Greensgrow. At that meeting, Dubuclet spoke alongside Jacquelyn Saez, who leads NKCDC’s nutrition education program. Mainly, though, they listened to community members’ perspectives about what to do with the property, including suggestions to add a tool library or host farmers’ markets—anything but turning it into pricey homes or apartments. (That won’t be happening, Dubuclet said.) In the coming months, Dubuclet expects to host some small events on the property, including produce markets, pumpkin painting and Christmas tree sales.
But given the extensive issues that contributed to Greensgrow’s demise and the year spent closed, considerable changes need to be made to the land before it can truly be restored. NKCDC is working with landscapers and contractors to clean out the property, build office space and bathrooms on site, and address many concerns, including problems with the land’s plumbing, electrical and drainage infrastructure.
Hohenstein said he is an “advocate and cheerleader” for the property’s rebirth and intends to work with state Sen. Nikil Saval to support grant applications and seek discretionary funding from the Pennsylvania Legislature that would allow for many of those improvements to be made. It will take more than just funding and changes to the land’s physical infrastructure to revitalize it, though.
“The ability of Greensgrow to move forward is going to depend on how well NKCDC can reach backward and build upon what was already there, rather than viewing this as something that’s starting from scratch,” Hohenstein said. “If NKCDC as an institution feels it has to rebuild everything that was already built up, in terms of not just the ground and the facilities but also the volunteer structures and the people—if they feel like they’ve got to reinvent all of this—that’s not going to work. They have to take advantage of all the personal commitments that were there that weren’t supported before.”
While Blade is optimistic about the level of outreach NKCDC has already shown to encourage community involvement in Greensgrow’s future, she’s also frustrated thinking about what could have been.
“We were always bouncing around ideas about what we could do—education programs, bringing back special events—and because of the lack of management or direction or communication with the board, those things were not able to happen for the last few years of Greensgrow,” Blade said.
‘Big shoes to fill’
When he toured the site with McKinney in February, Hohenstein saw the “solid foundation” for what it could become in its next chapter. An experienced gardener on his staff spent most Fridays this spring and summer supporting cleanup efforts at the farm. Hohenstein said he was particularly encouraged by NKCDC’s plan to collaborate with other community farms to support a vision with reach beyond East Cumberland Street. In that effort, the previous iteration of the farm had not always fulfilled its promise, he said.
“My perception of Greensgrow is that it was very insular,” Hohenstein said. “They were doing some really fantastic work, but it was confined to the spaces it was in.”
To that end, Dubuclet has already been working with Nice Roots Farm, a quarter-acre urban farm in Northwest Philadelphia that grows and donates nearly 5,000 pounds of food each year as part of the Share Food Program. Farm manager Ellie Kaplan has connected NKCDC to food pantries that could benefit from Greensgrow’s support and nutrition education. Nice Roots has offered to host lessons for future Greensgrow farmers on its land and donated young plantings to encourage the farm’s rebirth. The two have discussed the possibility of pursuing grants together, as well. Dubuclet noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently built a Philadelphia office, and NKCDC will seek to coordinate with that office on any potential funding opportunities.
“I hope it can continue to be a community space and expand on the idea of a community space, opening its doors to the people that live directly in the community, getting input from folks directly in the community and then giving back to that specific community as well so they can benefit,” Kaplan said.
Although the farm experienced a setback, Dubuclet said, she intends to “see it revitalized as something better.”
As for the name, NKCDC plans to seek community input on whether Greensgrow will live on, but that decision will come once the more pressing work has been addressed, Dubuclet said.
“NKCDC has very big shoes to fill,” she said. “Mary built something from a seed. It was something so remarkable.”
Cover photo: VISIT PHILADELPHIA®