Neglected Allison Hill garden will grow food and nurture neighborhood again, organizers hope

Harrisburg residents will get a preview Friday of a soon-to-be restored garden in the Allison Hill neighborhood.

“Our effort is to restore the entire area and return the whole thing into a functional use,” said Chris Nafe, the city’s sustainability coordinator. “We’re working on gathering resources to make it happen.”

Members of the Greenhouse Working Group have been spending hours preparing the land, raising funds, and educating nearby neighbors on their efforts to bring back the urban garden and eventually a new greenhouse to provide an option for healthy living in the city. The entire plot of land is about half an acre.

A virtual town hall on the “Greenhouse Transformation Project” is scheduled at noon Friday. It will be streamed to the city’s Facebook page, where residents’ input is welcomed. Some parts of the garden’s plans will start to take shape on Friday.

Planners said there’s an urgency to grow food now. The plot of land has sat near Reservoir Park off Whitehall Street in the city unused for two decades.

“If there’s one thing that COVID-19 taught us, it’s that we don’t eat healthy in Harrisburg,” said Rafiyqa Muhammad, a member of the group.

Muhammad spearheaded the project. She’s been a member of the city’s Environmental Advisory Council and is the owner of Sustainable Human Environment.

“In 2012, I and small groups of people would come up here to clean it up,” she said. “I had some farmers come up here to test the soil [and also] the USDA do some soil science testing, just to see what the ground was like.”

Through tilling and sampling, she said she feels confident that the garden will not only grow vegetables, for example, lettuce, cauliflower, and peppers but also produce flowers that are indigenous to the area.

Her vision of it includes garden beds, compost beds, raised garden beds, and more that can regenerate large amounts of fresh vegetables to help feed a good portion of the estimated 10,000 people who live in the Allison Hill area.

An existing greenhouse remains sitting on the land, but Muhammed said she’s not yet specifically seeking funds to build a new one.

“The goal is to make sure this is totally off the grid,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a burden to the city or the residents. Everything should be self-sustaining once it’s done.”

On Tuesday, while walking around the location, Nafe received news that the project received another $25,000 from the Whitt Family Foundation. So far, about $80,000 in cash has been raised toward the garden part of the project.

Around $100,000 total has been raised with a portion of that money going toward maintaining aspects of the existing greenhouse for now. Another $100,000 is going to be raised in the near future to build a new greenhouse. Private investors have also given Muhammad the nod but are watching as the project develops.

“We’re looking at the future, the use of the greenhouse building, and restoration,” Nafe said. “Whatever money received so far, though, is going to be focused on the garden beds, and teaching classes to residents on how to garden also at home.”

H. Edward Black and Associates, a Harrisburg-based land planning and design company, is working on the design, based on sketches from Muhammad’s permacultural class.

There’s a greenhouse café, which will include literature on how to grow vegetables, as well as a space for meditation, and possible retention ponds that slow the water flow down the side of a steep incline from the park above.

Nafe said he’d hoped to share the plans with city residents Friday, but they are not ready.

Muhammad and Publics Works employee Charisse Grayer recalled numerous details of when flowers once bloomed on the land and then were taken to the city’s islands on the Susquehanna.

“I’m excited to see it come back to what it was,” Grayer said. “And, seeing people come here instead of the grocery store. There’s nothing wrong with the grocery store, it’s just that this, we know where the food came from.”

Grayer said she’s always been a “girly girl and a tomboy” so working in the dirt is “no big deal.” She’s thrilled that people will be able to make fresh purchases in the near future for half of what it costs in the grocery store.

“All I can picture in my head is what it used to look like when I was a little girl,” Grayer said. “It seemed huge back then. Not that it isn’t a good size now, but I guess it’s because I was so little. It just felt like it took forever to walk over to pick up a mum. I’m emotional about it too, because I’m like, how did we get here? How did we let it go? And, how can we get it back and keep it?”

Harrisburg is part of the urban sustainability directors network, Nafe said. Other cities already have what the city is looking to try to create.

“Projects like this bring a lot of people from the community in, gives them a sense of pride of having green space in their neighborhood, and it teaches them about being able to grow healthy food and also be more self-sufficient,” he said.

Muhammad put a lot of thought into restoring and transforming the land, she said. She connected with a Harrisburg-area scientist, who has built controlled environments around the world. He most recently built greenhouses in Nigeria, she said. He will also take part in providing input.

“There is food apartheid here,” Muhammad said. “It’s not a food desert. We need to stop saying that. A desert has its own ecosystem. The desert is not dead. The desert is alive. It does spring fruit and it does spring flowers. We have a problem here with eating healthy. The closest grocery store is more than a mile away from here and if you don’t have a car, that’s hard.”

Kharyhlec Pruitt, who recently moved from Steelton to Harrisburg three weeks ago, said the first thing she looked at was the greenhouse, which is next door to her house.

“I want to have my own garden because of the pandemic,” she said. “I don’t want to have to go without because everybody goes and runs to the grocery stores. So, I’ve always said I’ve wanted a greenhouse so me and my family, and friends, we don’t run out of food. And, then we can help to keep it going and help other people.”

Pruitt said she thinks there are going to be a lot of people excited about the land’s transformation.

“There are so many people who are ready for this,” she said. “I know this pandemic is something serious. I know that it’s not a joke. And, I know it’s not a joke for people to go hungry.”

A second Zoom discussion will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 8. The passcode is 1008.

The discussions will focus on updates regarding the greenhouse grounds, as well as plans and ideas for its usage. Event links are also available at harrisburgpa.gov/greenhouse.

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