The Garden we now call Capitolo Community Garden has a long, and sometime sordid history. Before Capitolo became a City playground, the block bounded by 9th, Federal, 10th, Wharton Streets and Passyunk Avenue and totaling 4.1 acres, was a cemetery. The Lafayette Cemetery was established in 1839 over small creeks. It eventually contained about 47,000 interred bodies including those of many Civil War veterans.
From burial ground to ballfield
By the early 20th century the cemetery was neglected and in disrepair. It was condemned by the City of Philadelphia in 1946 as part of its playground initiative. The City paid Thomas Morris, the president of Evergreen Memorial Park in Bensalem, to unearth the bodies and relocate them to the Memorial Park, where their graves would be marked and maintained. Morris also received title to the land. However, Morris sold the land to a developer and neglected to properly rebury, mark or maintain the relocated graves in Evergreen Memorial Park. The relocated remains were buried in 32 unmarked trenches and not discovered until the excavation for a strip mall revealed them many years later. In fact, it is not known whether he even removed all of the graves from the Lafayette Cemetery site. In any event, the City bought the land back from the developer and constructed what was then called Federal Playground. On November 25, 1959, the playground was renamed in honor of Dr. Nicola Capitolo who was well-respected South Philadelphia physician and provided free medical care to neighborhood residents during the Great Depression.
Under-utilized and overlooked
The current location of the Capitolo Garden, at the northwest corner of Capitolo Playground was a baseball field with a backstop along the corner facing southeast and an infield. That field was much less utilized for ballgames than the one at 10th and Wharton Streets and fell into disrepair. The ballfield was so under-utilized that in 2003 Peter Nero and the Philly Pops held a concert for the neighborhood on the site of the current garden.
A 21st Century eyesore
By the last years of the first decade of the 21th century, the ballfield at the northwest corner of Capitolo Playground had become an eyesore. The backstop was rusting, the infield needed repair, the blacktop along 10th Street and Federal Street was crumbling. In 2008, Andrew Emma, a relatively new resident of the neighborhood, decided to become more involved with and help beautify his community. He, along with volunteers from the Circle of Hope Church, had cleaned two trash strewn vacant lots at 12th and Ellsworth Streets where he had noticed that one lot had been used as a garden.
A community effort
Andrew frequently walked past the ballfield at the northwest corner of the Capitolo Playground and saw how decrepit it had become. He thought that it would be a good spot for a community garden. After speaking to other neighbors, Andrew was put in contact with Kim Labno who had expertise in gardening. Kim and Andrew agreed that the underutilized ballfield at Capitolo Playground would be the best location in the neighborhood for a community garden, particularly since it was part of a City facility and, therefore, could not be developed for other uses. Andrew and Kim were speaking about establishing a community garden with Rita Caputo at a Passyunk Square Civic Association holiday party. Rita was a member of the Capitolo Playground Advisory Council and all agreed that Capitolo would be a good site for such a garden. Rita invited both Andrew and Kim to an Advisory Council meeting where everyone, including Advisory Council President Denise Eddis and Recreation Leader, Dennis Gibson, agreed to the proposal. Dennis and Denise contacted Barb McCabe from the City’s Recreation Department who was interested especially since the City was promoting green developments. All felt that a community garden would be a great use for the underutilized ballfield at the northwest corner of the playground.
Kim designed a garden for that location and she and Andrew sought ways to find neighbors who would be interested in gardening there. They reached out to friends and neighbors and even established a website asking residents if they would be interested in a garden plot. As a result, approximately forty neighbors expressed an interest. A meeting was called in February 2009, which was attended by approximately 30 residents who agreed that they would be willing to pay $40 a season to obtain a garden plot.
In the meanwhile, Capitolo Playground received a grant of $10,000 from the Philadelphia Eagles Dream Park Challenge which enabled it to pay for the removal of the backstop. The City tore up the infield and the blacktop within about two weeks thereafter. At a subsequent meeting of neighbors, the garden plots were assigned and gardeners developed a governing document, the Capitolo Community Garden Rules, which was based on other community gardens’ bylaws. There was a great deal of brainstorming regarding the size of the plots, how they should be grouped and the location of the common beds. Under the Rules, a Governance Council was elected. Its first members were: Kim Labno, Huu Ngo, Allison Fegel and Kaki Short. The gardeners built fences to separate the garden from the ballfield at 10th and Wharton Streets and from the small practice field along Federal Street. Each gardener had to dig out their own plot and construct their own beds. Some trees were donated by the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society’s TreeVitalize program. During the construction all kinds of items were found including pieces of headstone from the previous residents. The first garden season was especially wet and some flooding issues developed but the gardeners worked together to dig out trenches, which helped resolve those issues. In the garden plots that were not muddy plants and vegetables grew profusely due to the rich virgin soil.
A new beginning
A ribbon cutting ceremony was held in the rain on October 23, 2009 for the new community garden. Aside from gardeners, Advisory Council members and Playground staff, in attendance were 1st District Senator Lawrence Farnese, Department of Recreation Program Director, Stu Greenburg and District 7 Manager Steve Goldman. One of the gardeners, Holly Keefe, had taken a chance and entered the new garden in the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society’s annual garden contest. To everyone’s surprise, the garden won first place in the Combination Vegetable/Flower Garden category competition.
A growing success
In 2012, with the support of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, the City installed water lines, which greatly alleviated the chore of providing water to the individual plots and common beds. During the 2015 season, four additional plots were established to help meet the demand of neighbors who wanted to join the garden. Today, the garden has 46 plots, 43 for gardeners and three for Capitolo Playground children. Of course, we still have no idea how many bodies remain underground!
Little Library at CCG
The Capitolo Community Garden has its own Little Free Library. Members are welcome to give and take books - gardening topics are preferred. ga
The Garden tables and several of the chairs have been refurbished by the Construction Committee. The restored seating offers members a place to sit and enjoy the garden.
Donated to the Garden in memory of member Richard DeWitt, this solar-powered fountain, brings the soothing sound of flowing water to the Garden and offers pollinators a place to drink.
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