I work in the third poorest city in the United States. I came to Camden, New Jersey in the mid-1990’s an idealistic community organizer out to change the world. I was determined to help fix this city that sits on the Delaware River and looks directly across at Philadelphia–yet, feels a world apart. Camden has many struggles, not the least of which is wrenching poverty. Children go hungry while families struggle to make ends meet. Violence and murder frequently occur. Abandoned businesses are shuttered and dilapidated housing litters the landscape. Time Magazine once featured a story on Camden entitled, “Who Could Live Here“.
As difficult as it was, I wanted to live there. I wanted to be the change that I wished to see in the world. Everyday I searched for signs of hope among the ruins. I found it in a small community garden in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. I remember driving down the block past the drug dealers and boarded houses only to discover an oasis tucked behind an empty warehouse. I had stumbled upon a beautiful garden.
I gazed upon the rows of produce growing amidst the surrounding decay. I grew dizzy from the sweet scent of melons and the vibrant colors of the peppers, tomatoes, and bean plants. Everywhere I looked-everywhere that my eyes could see-were lovely colorful flowers growing in the adjoining vacant lots that populated the street.
I had never thought of gardening as an act of defiance before, but this was a garden of enormous courage. Camden is a brutal place. A broken place. All around it is pain and ugliness. However, the guardians of this community green space had refused to give up. They would not let the beauty be taken from them. Their small garden was a victory over suffering and proof of the power of the human spirit.
I had found what I was looking for.
Unfortunately, the ensuing years have not seen much change in Camden. Abandonment, poverty and crime still dominate the scenery. However, the community garden movement continues to grow. In addition to the urban farming serving this food desert, the Camden Community Garden Club provides greening and beautification services around the city. The Camden’s Children Garden, born out of the resident’s hard work and efforts, offers horticultural experiences and imaginative play opportunities along a four acre spread on the city’s waterfront. Camden’s community gardens are special places that provide sanctuary, nutritious food, and a chance for urban dwellers to explore and discover the natural world.
I take inspiration from these green spaces everyday. When my work becomes too hard and my soul begins to weary of the challenges I turn to the gardens for sustenance and renewal. I look to the garden for hope