Editor’s Note: We’re proud to present the sixth in a series of vignettes of local block captains drawn from Them That Do, a multimedia documentary project and community blog by West Philly-based award-winning photographer Lori Waselchuk. Go to Them That Do for more information, updates and additional photos.
Lisa Barkley shows me the view of her fruit tree orchard from the window of her bright yellow kitchen.
“We have apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, cherry trees, peach, apricot and nectarine trees,” Barkley says. She sounds surprised by the bounty she helped create. “A grapevine – we have Concord grapes out there. Wow!”
Barkley lives in the same 2-bedroom unit in the Haddington Homes public housing project at 55th Street and Vine where she was born. As a child, she played games on Pearl Street. As a young woman, she was the secretary for the Haddington tenant council and in 1999 she was voted the block captain.
From her home, she has watched her community evolve. “There were never flowers, no plants, just trees and some shrubbery here and there,” she remembers. “But it was clean. The adults really took ownership of where they lived.“
But as time went on, the community seemed to lose that sense of collective responsibility. The children lost safe play areas. The local cleaning business was torn down. The city blocked off Pearl Street, creating a dark, abandoned space. Haddington’s parking lot became a staging ground for stolen cars.
“Public housing is transient, so people move in for a while and move out. As a block captain, I want to see the neighborhood be neighbors again.”
Through Barkley’s leadership and with planning and material help from Urban Tree Connection and Mission Philadelphia (Facebook page), the Haddington residents have transformed the parking lots and Pearl Street into a playground, community gardens, and an orchard.
Barkley has reserved the orchard for the adults who live at Haddington. She encourages them to plant their own vegetable plots or use the orchard as a place of refuge.
“Gardening is a natural de-stresser, right? When I plant a seed in the ground and nurture a little sprout, the feeling I get inside – it’s fulfillment. “
The orchard feeds Barkley’s imagination and passions. She inspires others as well. On a sunny Saturday morning in September, eight women attended Barkley’s class on juicing, which she held in the orchard. The women laughed as they placed copious chunks of pineapple, grapes, pears, and spinach into the juicer. They teased each other during the tastings.
The orchard brings beauty into Haddington Homes, and beauty is Barkley’s highest priority. “I want to embrace life now and do all the beautiful things and live the beautiful way that I envision.”