Philadelphia’s Storied Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Sprouts New Life
Strawberry Mansion in North Philly boasts a history as elegant as its name. Once home to some of the city’s wealthiest families, the neighborhood takes its name from a mid-nineteenth century restaurant, located in a grand revolutionary-era residence, famous for serving fresh strawberries and cream to its guests. In the early 1900’s, the area became home to a prosperous community of Jewish residents who moved from South Philly to settle in the greener enclaves adjacent to spacious and cool Fairmount Park. It also became one of the most racially integrated parts of the city as the great migration saw many Black families move north, find jobs in the factories owned by wealthy Jewish business owners, and buy homes nearby.
As a result, Strawberry Mansion has one of the highest rates of multigenerational home ownership in the city. However, racial and civic unrest in the 1960’s led to White flight from the city to the suburbs, and Strawberry Mansion was no exception. Many stately homes went unsold and were eventually abandoned; today the neighborhood has one of the lowest median household incomes in the city.
Enter Haile Johnston and Tatiana Garcia Granados, a young couple who, in the early 2000’s, bought a brownstone townhouse in Strawberry Mansion. As they reached out and began to get to know their neighbors, they realized that the many vacant lots in the area presented the opportunity to beautify the neighborhood with the establishment of community gardens.
In 2003, Johnston and Garcia Granados founded the East Park Revitalization Alliance (EPRA), a non-profit that brought neighborhood children together to clean up their blocks by clearing abandoned plots, planting flower gardens, while also participating in afterschool studies.
Given that there were no stores that sold fresh food and produce in the neighborhood, EPRA also began planting tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, spinach, kale, collards and string beans. Eventually, this led Johnston and Garcia Granados to create a second non-profit, called Common Market, aimed at bringing the farm to table movement to urban environments.
Realizing they needed help in running EPRA, the couple brought Suku John on as Executive Director, who still serves in that position today. “Haley and Tatiana were pregnant with their first child, and had a lot of things going on,” Suku remembers, “I had known them for some years, and had admired everything that they’d done. So, they asked if I would come in and help them out at least for a year or two. That was in 2008!”
Today, EPRA supports and teaches neighborhood residents to grow food in their own community garden plots, and runs both a produce farm stand every Wednesday that brings fresh greens at below market prices to neighborhood residents, and a food pantry every Thursday that distributes canned dry goods and bread. Like most non-profits, EPRA was forced to cut back some of its in-person services during the pandemic. The food pantry, however, was one program where social distancing could be observed, and within weeks of shutdown it nearly tripled its customers, serving between 300 to 400 households per week where previously it served 75 to 100.
“A lot of people in the neighborhood, those who do have jobs, work in the service industry…so a huge chunk of neighborhood residents lost their jobs because of restaurant shut downs,” Suku says. “I think that’s mainly why we saw this huge spike in our food pantry program that is run by my colleague, Gail Gayle. She’s phenomenal. She’s from the neighborhood, born and raised, and knows everybody.”
EPRA also runs a number of programs for local children under the umbrella term Healthy Choices—an after school program; a six-week summer camp where kids can enjoy nature walks in nearby Fairmount Park and play soccer, basketball and tennis on its playing fields; as well as a teaching kitchen which children grow, cook and eat fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables.
Impact Deposits Corp. began supporting EPRA serendipitously. Vice President, Jay Stillman, had approached the Philadelphia Horticultural Society to explore the idea of creating a microgreens growing project that would hire the unemployed.
“They said to me, you know, there’s a guy over there in Strawberry Mansion who’s already doing something like that, you should talk to him,” Jay remembers. “I met Suku and was hooked; I’m a Jewish boy from Long Island, we don’t really grow things much, but I got involved in helping out in the community gardens and learned so much.”
That was nearly a decade ago and their relationship is still ongoing.
“The support we get from Impact Deposits each quarter has really helped us maintain and grow our services each year. Their commitment to doing good in this neighborhood is very real.”
Suku John, Executive Director, East Park Revitalization Alliance (ERPA)