The Christian Science Monitor Weekly

Vol 106 / Issue 29

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PEOPLE MAKING A DIFFERENCE Amy Laura Cahn helps urban gardens burst forth from neglected, weed-choked vacant lots in Philadelphia . By Christopher Weber / Contributor PhiladelPhia I n cities around the United States, people are going back to the land – the vacant land, that is. What was once called "squatting" or "guerrilla gardening" has become a creative approach to improving empty lots. In Philadelphia, Amy Laura Cahn is one of the leading exponents of this approach. A lawyer at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, Ms. Cahn has carved out a unique role as a land-access advocate. She works to amplify the voices of ordinary Philadelphians in discussions of how vacant land will be used. Vacant land is ubiquitous throughout the city, largely the result of disinvest- ment and population decline. Philadelphia lists nearly 40,000 vacant properties on its rolls. A quarter are publicly owned; the rest are abandoned, tax delinquent, or held by speculators. Instead of leaving these properties to the weeds or handing them to private develop - ers, Cahn helps community groups become land stewards. "My work is about residents having access to this space and controlling what happens in them," she says. To this end, she maps Philadelphia's va- cant lots, advises residents on how to obtain a property's title, and defends grass-roots projects threatened by development. And she advocates for new policies to make the process of land transfer easier and fairer. Cahn's biggest constituency is garden- ers with legal problems. Philadelphia has a long tradition of people creating squatter gardens, but since they lack legal standing, their plots can be razed at a moment's no- tice. "The city has tacitly accepted gardens as a good thing," Cahn explains, "but there hasn't been a workable way to make them permanent. "Gardens aren't just gardens," she adds. "They also serve as spaces to grow food, build skills and relationships, create art, and preserve cultural traditions." Cahn has campaigned to save some of Philadelphia's oldest and most beloved gar- dens. She helped rescue the Central Club for Boys and Girls, a nonprofit community garden and open space in South Philadel- phia that dates to the 1930s. Central Club's founder, Mabel Wilson, organized her neigh- bors to garden and maintain spaces when landowners died or disappeared, or homes were demolished. "The organization had been a nonprofit since 1947, but it never owned the land, and the taxes kept mounting," Cahn says. "When they finally acquired the land in 2010, they were saddled with years of back taxes." In 2011, the Philadelphia Sheriff 's Of- fice, which conducts foreclosure sales on the city's behalf, listed three of Central Club's parcels for sale. Cahn used the courts to have the sales postponed and successfully petitioned to have the taxes waived. "Thankfully, the court and the authorities ended up recognizing the decades of work that Central Club has put into caring for and improving the land," she says. Central Club is just one of Cahn's pro ann hermes/staff Amy Laura Cahn, director of Philadelphia's Garden Justice Legal Initiative, stands in the Mercy Emily Edible Park in Philadelphia. VNEXT PAGE 44 ThE ChRIsTIAN sCIENCE MoNIToR WEEKly | June 9, 2014

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