The fire that started it all . . .

Most of the 1000 block of Washington Avenue, back through to Kimball Street, was the site of a large, four-story, brick factory building dating from the turn of the century. Behind this structure was the former garage and boiler room, including a 150-ft. smoke stack, for the Curtis Publishing building across 11th Street. These buildings were in disrepair and had been nearly vacant for years, and their looming presence cast a shadow over the whole block.
In July, 1993, fire broke out in the main structure, destroying most of the building and further degrading the neighborhood. The ruins of the building sat for months and were finally torn down, leaving a sprawling, brick-strewn lot that took up much of the block between Kimball, Washington, 10th and 11th.

Kimball Street Community Garden

Read the article published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 200By 1994, the property on the west and south sides of Christ Presbyterian church at 10th and Kimball Streets adjacent to the Washington Street lot had become a weed-choked eyesore, home to vagrants and trash. A handful of neighbors approached the church members, requesting permission to establish a community garden on that land. The church generously agreed to an initial 5-year plan, and by the fall of 1994, the first work days were organized to clear the land and establish a community garden.


The tree farm

The empty lot along Washington Avenue was owned by a New York developer who intended to lease the land for commercial purposes, but had not progressed with any plans. By late 1994, a group of neighbors, many of them Kimball St. Community Garden members, took interest in the vacant land adjoining their garden and decided to act together to have a say in its disposal.
This group organized under the name of Bel Arbor, and with the invaluable help of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Philadelphia Green Program, approached the developer with a plan for Philadelphia Green to plant saplings on the vacant land that Bel Arbor members would raise to be re-planted as “street trees” in the surrounding neighborhoods. The developer agreed to a 5-year plan to allow use of his land for this purpose. PHS started excavating planting trenches to be filled with topsoi, and in the spring of of 1995, just under 1000 saplings were planted on the site. The Bel Arbor Tree Farm had begun.
The agreement called for Bel Arbor members to care for the trees. Many hours of volunteer labor went into mulching, pruning and watering the trees. PHS supplied all technical and material support including training, large-scale excavation, supplies and know-how.

Growing up

Over the next few years, the trees grew and became large enough for transplanting to their street locations. In the meantime, the developer had secured plans to develop the land in 3 phases, with the first being to put a CVS drug store at 11th and Washington on the west half of the block, then build a structure housing 2 or 3 buisness on the eastern half, and finally developing the smaller parcel behind these plots, facing Kimball St., as 12 houses.
Bel Arbor was faced with consolidating the tree farm as the development proceeded. The group organizeed "Digging Up Days" and community groups from across the city came to dig up trees to plant in their own communities. Smaller trees were moved to the remaining tree farm area along 10th Street. As the second phase of development on Washington Avenue began, all the remaining trees were moved to the lot bordering Kimball Street, measuring about 700 ft. x 150 ft.

Negotiating a future

Bel Arbor and Kimball Street Garden members took action to preserve the last vestige of the tree farm by entering into negotiations with the developer to permanently donate the land to Bel Arbor. Luckily, Bel Arbor was able to call on the assistance of the Neighborhood Gardens Association, a non-profit Philadelphia organization with the purpose of acquiring title to land used by community gardens, ensuring their preservation from development. After protracted negotiations, the developer agreed to donate the land and take a sizeable tax write-off, with NGA assuming title to the land and providing insurance and other support to Bel Arbor. Tthe property was now secure and Bel Arbor could confidently plan for the future.

Bringing it all together

As the remaining trees matured and were moved to their permanent homes, the Bel Arbor group had to decide the future as a tree farming entity. The plot that remained and became Bel Arbor’s permanent home was deemed too small and lacked adequate street access for heavy equipment needed to move trees to continue as a tree farm. Since most of the Bel Arbor members were also Kimball St. Garden members it was decided to combine the entities under the name of Bel Arbor Community Garden, expand some gardening into the newly acquired plot and the remaining space would include open areas, permanently located trees, and a variety of plantings including a “wildflower meadow” of native grasses in the middle. The new organization was approved by both boards in spring, 2001.

The future

Bel Arbor continues to improve the land it occupies and provide community outreach.


After the fire

See the video about the history of our garden at Philaplace.org