Chinatown Community Garden, 1974-1985


A 1983 image of the Chinatown Community Garden, 10th and Vine Streets, Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Green Files. McLean Library, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

In her 1978 article titled "Street of Vines: Chinatown Community Garden," Anna Ku Lau traced the garden's founding, its intergenerational focus and health benefits to the community, and its introduction of plants indigenous to China to the wider community of Philadelphia gardeners:

Over the past two decades, various pieces of land have been acquired along Vine Street in downtown Philadelphia to expand the Expressway [Vine Street Expressway]. Although money was available to acquire land and demolish residential and commercial properties, apparently there was no money to build, in spite of community opposition as well as opposition from the Keystone Automobile Association. While waiting for an adequate and objective Environmental Impact Statement, in the midst of this battle between the proponents of the Expressway and the Chinatown community, a garden unexpectedly sprang up on a vacant lot at the corner of 10th and Vine Streets. 

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Above. Detail of the image in the clipping of John J. Herd's Letter to the Editor titled "Decision is needed soon on I-95." Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 November 1973. "Save Chinatown Sign." (1973) George E. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection. Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center. Below. "Chinatown Community Garden." [1983] Philadelphia Green Files. McLean Library, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Most of the gardeners are residents of the community. Few of them speak English. Even fewer of them venture beyond their crowded little dwellings except to work or shop within the community. This garden gives them a reason to stay and work outdoors. It is also a social occasion for most of the elderly people, to rub shoulders with with old friends and exchange news and garden tips. So as their carefully nurtured vegetables grow, so do their friendships.

Often, three generations of within the same family till the same plot. For the first time grandchildren have begun to appreciate the beauty of growing vegetables from seed to harvest. ... -- Anna Ku Lau. "Street of Vines: Chinatown Community Garden." Green Scene, March 1978

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Above. Chinatown Community Garden [1983]. Below. Bok choy (Brassica chinensis) [1988] Philadelphia Green Files. McLean Library. Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

In 1976, Chinese gardeners introduced an array of brand new vegetables to Philadelphia in their community garden at 10th and Vine. They imported seeds from China or got them from the vegetables in their grocery stores. They used shrimp shells and egg shells for fertilizer. To Harvest Shows and community parties they brought sprouts and melons and beans such as we had never seen. Their Chinese cucumber (sing quar) is sometimes a foot long, and curls up like a snake. Their winter melon, a chalky green squash, grows so big (up to 100 pounds) that it is sold in slices in the markets. They gave us seeds and taught us to stir-fry and steam. The garden flourished for a few seasons, before it was lost, along with its magnificent dragon mural, to the Vine Street Expressway. The crucial loss, according to Chinatown's Cecilia Yep, is the social life, especially for the old people, who delighted in "sharing the old ways" as they gardened with three generations. "Friendships grew with the vegetables." -- Natalie Kempner. "Community Gardening: A Patchwork of Roots." The 1988 Philadelphia Flower Show

... The Chinese Community Garden at 10th and Vine Streets won honorable mention [at the Community Garden Harvest Party]. They displayed a beautiful harvest table which won second prize in the category as well as first prize winning peanuts, Chinese cabbage and broccoli and a wide variety of other vegetables including bitter melon, 2-foot beans & hueng kunn or Chinese celery. Perhaps the most poignant exhibit on the harvest table was the sheet which described their vegetables and told how their gardens were endangered by the proposed Vine Street Expressway expansion -- as is much of Chinatown. Maybe we're all bit mad growing food and community in the face of planners who cannot even recognize a community much less respect it and help it grow. ... -- Libby J. Goldstein. "The City Gardener." Philadelphia Daily News, 28 September 1977.

Chinatown Community Gardeners were given the Green Thumb of the Decade Award for maintaining their site at 10th and Vine for 10 years. Sadly, the garden will fall next year to the construction of the Vine Street Expressway. -- Philadelphia Green Annual Recognition Dinner. PHS News, December 1984.

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Chinatown Community Garden, 10th and Vine Streets, Philadelphia. Philadelphia Green Files. McLean Library. Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Further Reading

Bauman, John F. “Expressways, Public Housing, and Renewal: A Blueprint for Postwar Philadelphia, 1945-1960,” Pennsylvania History (January 1990)

Begley, Kathleen; "Chinese Protest Xway Plan," Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (23 April 1973)

Carey, Art, ed.; "The Lasting Stand of Cecilia Yep," Philadelphia Inquirer (8 July 1984)

Corr, John. "Chinatown Portrays Its Frustrations, Woes," Philadelphia Inquirer (4 September 1973)

Goldstein, Libby J. "Our City's Bumper Crop of Winning Gardeners," Philadelphia Daily News (13 September 1978)

Jon Wing Lum. "Chinatown is threatened with destruction," Philadelphia Inquirer (21 June 1973)

McCabe, Sally. "Cultivate the Curious," Philadelphia Daily News (16 September 1980)

Yee, Mary. “The Save Chinatown Movement: Surviving Against All Odds.” Journal of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (April 2012)

Generous support for this exhibition is provided by a National Endowment for the Humanities SHARP Grant


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Chinatown Community Garden, 1974-1985