DescriptionLas Parcelas, a community garden in the Norris Square neighborhood of Philadelphia, began with brushes and paint, rather than shovels and seeds. Plans for the space began in the 1980s. It was not until a summer day in 1992, however, that a “massive multi-agency, anti-drug raid” in “The Badlands” (so called because of the area’s reputation for drugs and violence) enabled this vision of a revitalized urban space to begin. That same day vacant lots were cleared of debris and a mural started. The “colors and spirit of Puerto Rico” were used as “a way to provoke the neighborhood people to see something other than drugs and trash.” Las Parcelas was born.
A Spanish term literally meaning “the parcels,” Las Parcelas is a collection of garden spaces, maintained by women in a dedicated neighborhood organization, Grupo Motivos, in collaboration with the Norris Square Neighborhood Project and the Philadelphia Horticultural Society's Philadelphia Green. More than community garden plots, however, Las Parcelas is akin to a museum. It tells a story of Puerto Rican heritage as a part of American history, materialized in Philadelphia’s urban landscape through culture and horticulture. Economic decline and urban policies created a landscape seemingly devoid of nature and culture, and rife with racial tensions. Through gardening, Las Parcelas attempts to make a positive story of heritage and identity tangible, by displaying culture in a landscape where it was all too frequently made invisible.
The vibrant murals recall the landscape and labor of Puerto Rico, honor community leaders and commemorate the passing of traditions on to a younger generation. Masks and designs on benches explore the African heritage that became rooted in Puerto Rico along with native Taino and introduced European cultures. Inside “La Casita” (pictured) objects donated by older residents are used as educational tools. As Iris Brown, a coordinator of Grupo Motivos, describes the garden’s ideals, “it’s a good way to show our culture and background to younger generations and non-Puerto Ricans. Through the casita and the gardens we say, ‘here’s where we are now, but here’s where we’ve been. This is who we are.” As an intergenerational community space, there are areas for gatherings, cookouts, dancing, and crafts. It is also a place to invent new traditions for the future. With overlapping ideas of culture, identity, heritage and environmental education, Las Parcelas captures themes common in garden history, combining them to create a unique sense of place rooted in Puerto Rican experiences.