The Secret Garden of Upper Fell’s Point

The Upper Fell's Point Community garden was once a habitat for rats.

Comprising three lots, two owned by the city and a third by a private owner with liens for unpaid taxes, the land teemed with garbage and vermin. It was in the summer of 1987 that the Upper Fell's Point Improvement Association saw potential in the abandoned lots. With hard work and community spirit, they turned the only unpaved areas in the neighborhood into a community garden and green space.

But as Fell's Point underwent an economic resurgence, the little patch of green became more attractive to both residents and developers. The guerilla gardeners needed to find a way to protect their garden from development. They recruited the help of the Baltimore Green Space, a land trust that partners with communities to preserve and support community-managed open spaces.

Green Space jumped at the opportunity. The community garden was a sound investment because the soil had low levels of contaminants, brought a clear net benefit to the neighborhood, and almost guaranteed future success because of its productive track record. Most importantly, the gardeners were passionate about the project and eager to see the land preserved.

Negotiations over the garden parcels dragged on for years but, by 2009, with the help of community residents and Baltimore Green Space, the first two lots were purchased. A 2011 foreclosure on the third property rounded out the collection.

With protection from Baltimore Green Space, residents could better influence decisions about the land. The gardeners were able to make major changes to the wide sidewalk in front of the garden. They added a tree pit, expanded two others, and replaced most of the concrete with pervious paving, topping the project off with a stunning mosaic.

The new pervious sidewalk at the Upper Fell's Point Community Garden. Photo by Miriam Avins.

Though the permits were important to the garden's longevity, Baltimore Green Space Executive Director Miriam Avins credits tenacious community spirit to the project's success: "It was a grassroots community response to the nastiness of having a vacant lot."

There are myriad benefits to creating a garden in the once-blighted space. The soft tilled land acts more like a sponge than hard concrete lots. The plants attract birds and beneficial insects to the neighborhood, bringing life to the dense urban space.

The garden has also been used by the community as an activity center for various events, such as pumpkin carving, potluck cook-out, happy hours, and progressive dinner parties. But Avins thinks the most important benefit is the way grassroots efforts create community buy-in. "To have a city come in and tell you what to do with the property isn't always helpful," she said. "The spaces are important as a part of community self-determination."

Without question there are logistical challenges to developing a successful community garden. Abby Cocke at the Baltimore Planning Department said that one of the biggest concerns with building a community garden in such a dense urban space is soil quality. "The 200-year-old neighborhood has been developed for a long time, so there is lots of potential for contamination," she explained.

Making the land workable is also a challenge, but the Upper Fell's Point Community Garden has a strong network of volunteers. Ever-present security concerns are mitigated with a gate.

The payoff has been delicious. The garden has won numerous gardening awards over the years for everything from their beans to their Brussels sprouts.

Avins and Cocke agree that the Upper Fell's Point Community Garden will likely stay unique in Fell's Point. The neighborhood is exceptionally dense and lacks any more vacant plots. But the garden is so strong, it can stand on its own, in a tiny former rat habitat in a historical corner of Baltimore.

About the Author

Samantha Schipani is APA's Great Places in America communications intern.

Top image: The Upper Fell's Point Community Garden. Photo by Miriam Avins.

July 21, 2016

By Samantha Schipani