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Preston's Paradise Seeds Urban Gardening in West Philly

Preston's Paradise at 839 Preston Ave.

A hen in the garden at Preston's Paradise

An overgrown sink behind the garden

Tomatoes grow in the side yard

The entrance to Paradise

Raspberries look ready to eat at the ALAW home

A table setup in the community garden at 40th and Wallace

Sunflowers reaching high

Rainbow chard on wallace

When Ryan Kuck and his wife moved to the Belmont section of West Philadelphia seven years ago, they immediately went about digging, weeding, planting and watering. As their home garden grew, it piqued the interest of their neighbors.

Little did they know that their love of gardening would be a catalyst for bigger ventures.  

“So this was really just, we have a garden, we have connections to people that can get us materials, and if there is someone that wants to garden, then we’re there to help do it,” said Kuck.  “We’re just trying to connect people to resources that exist.”

Eventually, Preston’s Paradise was born, a garden oasis on Preston Avenue complete with two chickens and benches for lounging. Maintained by neighborhood volunteers, Preston’s Paradise provides healthy food options in an area that doesn’t have many, a chance for neighbors to unify and an aesthetic beyond the boarded up homes in the area.

“People are familiar with fresh food and they’re familiar with gardening, so we’re not doing anything that wasn’t done here before,” said Kuck, a native of Tennessee who came to Philly in 1999 and worked in Philadelphia public schools as a consultant for Urban Nutrition Initiative.
.  “It’s just a new wave, a new injection of energy.”

Gardens are common in West Philadelphia, but many have diminished. Some fell into disrepair when aging caretakers could no longer tend to plots. Others were taken away when the city - which owned a lot of the vacant land residents built gardens on - reclaimed the land for development projects. Preston’s Paradise works to create sustainable gardens by working with homeowners and institutions.

“The garden’s going to be there forever, if not a long time,” said Kuck. “And so people can feel good and feel solid about investing in it because it’s not going to be taken away from them.”

Preston Paradise has built about 10 neighborhood gardens – some are public, allowing passersby to pick their own produce. Other projects include: a garden behind the Sarah Allen Senior Home, an orchid garden at the Autism Living and Working home for autistic adults and community gardens located on nearby Wallace and Odgen Streets.

In the spring, Preston’s Paradise expanded access to healthy choices with the West Philadelphia Fresh Food Hub.

“What people are being served is not full of dignity for the consumers and the people that live here,” said Kuck.  “We are trying to raise that discourse a bit.”

What started out as a pushcart operating on Lancaster Avenue once a week for a couple of hours expanded into a mobile store.  The Greensgrow Philadelphia Project also operates the truck, which is open four days a week near 37th St. Now Preston’s Paradise can extend its reach to more people, such as those in nursing homes, and provide an array of nutritional choices. Granola, milk and farm-fresh eggs without hormones are available, all of which can be purchased with ATM/Debit cards, farmer’s market coupons and food stamps.

The next goal is to open a store with a sustainable business plan on Lancaster Avenue.  Kuck said they want to take the “old school model” and improve food quality, the availability of jobs and bring health promotion to the area. Kuck was among a group that visited Flying Kite's On the Ground headquarters at 4017 Lancaster as a possible site.

Even though Preston’s Paradise and the West Philadelphia Fresh Food Hub has unexpectedly led Kuck and his wife to help build and connect to the community, it’s not surprising that it all began around the subject of food.

"I think it’s clear when you’re in the streets that these relationships wouldn’t exist without some sort of underpinning, and food is a commonality that we all share,” said Kuck. “It’s something that we all have to do everyday, so it’s really a nice community building tool because there are no divisions.

ZENOVIA CAMPBELL is a Master of Journalism student at Temple University and lives in South Philly. Send feedback here.

All photographs by BAILEY ELIZABETH

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