Mulberry trees scatter the outskirts of the lot. There are no gates to keep people out, only fences bordering two sides to denote other peoples’ properties. The place is overridden with mugwort, and on any given weekday, birds and random litter occupy the space.
It feels wild & gritty.
The Philly Socialists built the garden, an effort headed by an organizer from Colombia. Her name is Mara. There are five raised beds, a picnic table, a wooden archway, a large sign, a rain barrel, discarded tires, and a small, open-air roofed-over area.
Somehow Mara got into contact with Cesar and his family, who are from Mexico. They do Aztec dance-performances donning full regalia: loincloths, tribal face paint, medicine shakers, and headdresses made from feathers, feathers, feathers, and more feathers. One headdress even incorporates a stuffed deer head. It’s truly a sight to behold.
I was pleasantly surprised when I showed up at the garden and they were there to bless the grounds. Drums, whoops & yells, chanting, and conch shells resounded the air. They brought corn to plant as well, so I went back home to retrieve the extra vegetable plants at our house.
When I returned to the garden, Mara and I borrowed a truck to take a trip to Home Depot to pick up garden tools and extra soil.
It amazes me how fluid & trusting people can be. Here is a group of strangers coming together, more or less spontaneously, to accomplish a common goal. Namely, building up a garden. & Everyone’s sharing resources. Not only that (and this is kind of a separate tangent because I saw a couple folks at Home Depot), it amazes me how many friends I run into on a regular basis. I haven’t lived in this area for like 6 years, but it’s like I never left. A few weeks back, a friend was picking up food at an Indian place we were walking by, and he yelled from down the street, “Jozef Maguire, Philadelphia welcomes you back to the neighborhood!” It warmed my heart. & Granted, my dad lives in the area, and I have friends who throw art shows and poetry readings around town, so it’s not like I’ve been completely absent or on the other side of the world, but still, it’s heart warming & unexpected.
I guess this is community. I say it loosely, because that’s how it is. There are core groups who grind together & create more intimacy, but at the end of the day, there are so many people living in the city, and the loose connections that reoccur on the outer edges and slowly strengthen help to create the larger picture. The myth of a city is important. It gives everyone a story to connect to & explore.
The interesting thing about America is (and this is ever present in her cities), there are a variety of myths.
The next block over from the garden, a Puerto Rican festival was taking place. They were bumping music & the smell of BBQ drifted in the air. The whole atmosphere was one of celebration.
There was a PBS film-maker there too. He shot video. He’s been following Cesar around to document his life & work. Most recently, Cesar painted a mural dedicated to Pope Francis’s visit to Philly.
Cesar is a sturdy, squat, unassuming man originally from Mexico. He has long hair and a greying mustache & goatee. He expresses his appreciation & gratitude more often than most people I know. And he does so in such a way that it feels natural and humble. There’s no bravado involved.
It’s a good reminder.
After the dancing, we collectively planted the vegetables & Cesar lit a chalice of incense and swept the smoke over the plants as he said a prayer to the rain, to the earth, to the seedlings, to the corn.
I don’t know how I find these happenstances in life, but it resonates with me deeply. I don’t know what my role is exactly, but I often feel like an agent of change, and if the transformation has already been kick-started, I often feel like a silent force, like a wind that helps push the ship across choppy, unpredictable seas.
To be literal, I’m a gardener tending to the growth of plants.
There was a clay pot that held a special significance. We transferred water from the rain barrel to the pot. Right away it felt different from what we usually use: a tiny, plastic watering can that is most likely a toy meant for kids. The bottom is yellow and the top is pink. It’s playful & practical, but it feels less ceremonious than the clay pot.
When everyone left, there were a few of us who stuck behind: Jeff, a punk & carpenter from West Philly, Mara, the organizer from the socialist group, and Cesar, the artist. Jeff told us about a Latino punk festival that occurs in NYC midsummer, and perhaps, when they pass through Philly, he’ll get to work on organizing a mini festival. That excited everyone. The conversation spurred on, and we talked about reaching out to neighbors who live in adjacent buildings, and perhaps, we can paint murals on their empty walls.
I get the feeling these folks are dreamers & activists. Like the seed that turns to plant that turns to flower that turns to fruit, there’s a grounded-ness to the whole chronicle.