Bringing some green to Southwest Philly
A decade of dedication leads to Cecil St. Garden

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Considering the social and environmental injustices of America’s history, turning an abandoned southwest Philly lot into a thriving community garden is quite the achievement.

Initiatives to add parks, gardens and more natural landscaping to urban areas are bringing the green back to communities of color. And, thanks to the dedicated assistance of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum and many other partners, one predominantly Black southwest Philadelphia neighborhood is much greener with its community garden.

A disconnect linked to discrimination

Discriminatory and racist policies such as redlining, forced migration and economic segregation have had profound effects on human settlement patterns in the U.S.  The legacies of these exclusionary practices persist in many forms, including lower participation in outdoor recreation by people of color, with many feeling unwelcome or in danger while in nature. People of color are also underrepresented in hiring at natural resource agencies and are less likely to visit national wildlife refuges and other public lands.

A 2017 study conducted by Conservation Science Partners and commissioned by Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress revealed that 68% of Black or African American people lived in nature-deprived areas. 

From eyesore to Eden

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2016 is when community members and partners cleared out the Cecil St. lot to make way for renovations

The Cecil St. Garden was nothing more than an unmaintained lot riddled with invasive plants and abandoned houses that underscored the neglect of the property. At the corner of Cecil St. and Kingsessing Avenue, it’s in a zip code that has a 74% Black population.

Victoria Chambliss, endearingly called Ms. Vicki by those who know her, is a longtime resident of Southwest Philly who envisioned turning the vacant lot into something more back in 2014. Facing challenges from the city to get the garden started, Ms. Vicki was driven by her motto “I’m gonna do it anyway.”

She enlisted the help of Empowered Community Development Corporation, an organization committed to “Building Southwest from the inside out” through beautification, education and community cohesion, eventually becoming a board member.

After Cecil St. residents petitioned the city to remove the abandoned houses on the lot, Empowered CDC leased the property. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2016, volunteers stripped and cleaned the lot in preparation for renovation. Ms. Vicki prepared a big pot of her famous chicken noodle soup to feed all the volunteers. 

“That’s what I’m good for. I can’t give you money, but I can feed you,” she said.

Over the next 8 years, the community and partners continued to plan, design and build a garden that features perennial native plants such as wildflowers and fruiting plants like strawberries and blueberries. Heinz refuge provided staff and materials to construct the garden, hold outdoor recreation programs, and plant the native vegetation.  From the garden’s first iteration in 2016 to planning the garden's layout at meetings held in Miss Vicki's dining room in 2020 to constructing the trellis at the garden’s center in 2023, the community stood steadfast in its goal to green the neighborhood.

Dedicating the dedication

At the October 7th, 2023, ribbon cutting, key players in the project's completion posed for a photo before cutting the ribbon to dedicate Cecil Street Garden.

More than 30 people attended the October 7, 2023, ribbon cutting, moderated by Val Gay, executive director of Empowered CDC. Speakers included Ms. Vicki, U.S. Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum Refuge Manager Lamar Gore, State Representative Regina Young, Director of Landscape Architecture at Thomas Jefferson University Kim Douglas, and Audubon Mid-Atlantic’s Delaware River Watershed Program Manager Robin Irizarry.

Partners from Empowered CDC, Thomas Jefferson University, Audubon Mid-Atlantic, and John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum congregating in Miss Vicki's dining room to discuss future design plans for Cecil St. Garden.

Now representing District 185 in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Regina Young founded Empowered CDC and came out to show support for the garden she helped acquire.

Rep. Young praised Gore for his community involvement. “It’s people like Lamar who are really intentional and persistent in engagement at a higher level. With [the refuge] at the helm, [the partners] are intentionally seeking to transform Southwest in a meaningful way.”

The road to achieving the project was arduous but rewarding says Gore.

“The plan was to take the vision of the community and try to bring it to life … We knew that we were kind of pushing against the city to try to get the approval to actually build [the garden], and so for me it was, ‘Let’s make sure we keep programming it, so the community doesn’t think we’re walking away.’” 

Ms. Vicki already sees the impacts of the garden on the community: a man who eats and reads there every morning, kids who sat and mingled in the wake of a nearby shooting, a couple who have lunch together in the garden every day.

“I really feel truly blessed that I was able to get this done. What [Empowered CDC] does is bring stability to a neighborhood. What we want to do is make sure that our young people know that they got some place to come. We don’t want them to say, ‘I don’t have anywhere to go’ or ‘Nobody cares’; you can come here and reflect and feel good about yourself and not have to go another route. It’s not about anything but being safe. “

A greener future

Volunteers, community members, and members of the Philadelphia Carpenter's Union Local 158 built the garden's features such as the table tops and benches on this hot summer day in 2023

Audubon Mid-Atlantic is partnering with Thomas Jefferson University, the National Wildlife Federation, Heinz Refuge, and others to create additional natural areas throughout the city to green more neighborhoods and increase habitat for pollinator species. Funding for these projects is provided in part by the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund which provides grants to help partners identify, plan, and implement projects in the watershed to enhance safe recreational access for the public.

The community will appoint two to four young people to serve as Cecil St. Garden ambassadors. They will be trained to maintain the park and learn more about the wildlife in the garden as a means to continue the park’s legacy beyond those who created it.

And Ms. Vicki has a loftier goal in mind following the garden’s completion:

“My goal is to have this [kind of space] in every neighborhood that has a vacant lot because when you sit here, I don’t care if it’s a whole lot of traffic going on, people talking and hollering and screaming — you sit in here, you become so comfortable,” she says. 

Though creating the garden was its own long, complicated process, Ms. Vicki also encountered personal challenges. From a knee replacement in 2015 to conquering cancer in 2023, she recounts it as “every time something significant has happened in the garden, it’s taken a piece of me.” 

When asked if she regrets any of this work, given the health impacts she’s experienced, she said, “Not at all. I had to lose those pieces in order to accomplish this. We have managed to bring this to fruition. I don’t regret nothing I did. I might have handled it better. I might not have cussed out so many people.”

Cecil St. Garden now serves as a space for gathering in the serenity of nature and as a display of how partnerships can empower a community.

The product of years of hard work, the Cecil Street Garden was officially completed in August 2023

This project was made possible by the dedication of countless partners and volunteers, including John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum and their youth crews through MobilizeGreen and Student Conservation Association; Empowered CDC; Audubon Mid-Atlantic; Thomas Jefferson University; Philadelphia Carpenter’s Union Local 158; Block Gives Back; National Wildlife Federation; National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; and Fortress Arts.

Story Tags

Environmental justice
Land development
Places (Human-made)
Special events