Kim Niemela is far from the first person to look at a vacant lot in Philadelphia and want to create a garden. But for Niemela, director of public art non-profit CosaCosa, the stakes are higher than simply improving property value or dressing up an eyesore. After helping the Nicetown-Tioga community launch the Healing Garden in 2007, she’s seen firsthand the potential of an abandoned piece of land in a neighborhood that deserves better.
“It’s almost a sacred space,” she says of the well-tended plot at N. Marvine & W. Venango streets. “If there’s a death in the neighborhood, it’s become a space for memorials and remembrance. It’s a place for games, it’s a place for meetings — it’s a real hub of life here.”
Now, thanks to a new $75,000 grant from the Knight Arts Challenge, CosaCosa is in the process of acquiring two new lots in the neighborhood. One will serve as a vegetable garden — there’s been an interest in greening and gardening in the community since the Healing Garden — while another will be transformed into a meditation space.
While CosaCosa serves the entire city, Nicetown-Tioga was the natural candidate for the new gardens. Not only does the organization have a decades-long relationship with the area, but there’s still work to be done and community members eager to do it.
“There are a lot of empty lots — it’s one of the more challenged neighborhoods,” says Niemela. “But there’s a lot of people there trying to make it better — a real sense of wanting to revitalize the neighborhood.”
CosaCosa isn’t the only organization revitalizing lots with the help of Knight Arts grants. The Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund received $100,000 to transform West Philly lots into art-filled skateparks in a project that also involves the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym, the Mural Arts Program and Recycling Artists in Residency.