Hayward Ford


President, Aspen Farms Community Garden (1980s-2009)

Hayward talks about the origins of Aspen Farms, the work that he's done with WPLP and Sulzberger Middle School, and he reflects on the “ripple effect” that the garden has had on the neighborhood. From an interview in 2002.


History of Aspen Farms

Aspen Farms basically got started in the early 70s. It was originally 8 plots on the northwest corner of 49th and Aspen and it evolved to about 20 gardens and now it's up to 45. I guess we don't have more because we ran out of space.

In the area, there are several other gardens. I would say in that area there's got to be 25 or 30 gardens, in the Mill Creek area. They were basically homes that was abandoned, old businesses on the lot before the garden. In that area Mill Creek runs under a lot of those homes and they were getting washed out under the building so they demolished the buildings. Then it was just open ground and as it lay, a clean spot always attract trash. And so they really became eyesores for the community-you know, blight. Major blight so when the gardens came it was a revelation for the community and at the time when we started the gardens the city was basically in dire straights. So they were more than happy to let someone else take care of the property for them. Hence the community gardens.

For the exception of using their lands and getting permission to use it each year, there are no relationships between us and the city government. Each year we have to get our "contract" and renew it each year in order to use it each year but other than that, the city does not provide any funding or anything else, technical assistance or otherwise for any betterment of the garden. It's just a straight thing: we'll give you the land, you keep it up. And you know as long as we don't do anything which is contrary to their wishes, we can garden . . . or until they get ready to build something. That has happened many times. But we also have in the city Neighborhood Garden Association. NGA is a land trust and they are actively seeking to get some of the major gardens into the fold so we won't lose them. As a matter of fact Aspen Farm is one of them-we are about to take the last step into the land trust.


When Hayward met Anne Spirn

I met Anne a couple of years even before she started the West Philadelphia Landscape Project and I think it was like '85, '86 something like that. And we've been working almost on a daily basis since that until she went to MIT.

We did a lot of logistic work. We worked with so many groups. Let's see, Sulzberger School, University of Pennsylvania, I mean it's just unbelievable, I mean churches, clubs, groups, we worked with all different groups.

When Anne's students from U Penn redesigned the garden that was one of the most challenging and rewarding portions in the 28 or 30 years of the garden because you had about 20 architect design students that came in and they were going to redesign our central feature, our central walkway. And everybody's design was perfect but all or most designs did not serve our use. So after a lot of a lot of collaboration and soul-searching we condensed about 5 garden models into one-the one we have now. There was a lot of unhappy people but I think when we came out we got a beautiful feature to use.

Before we had a walkway in the center aisle, we did not have a central "feature." We had a pathway and a few benches and what not, but it was not central, you know like a Main Street for a town. So now that's one of the things I wanted. I wanted a feature that flowed but that had enough distractions to make you stop when you came into the garden. And that was one of the features that most of the young architects missed, we thought. That's why we had to condense 5 or 6 of their plans into one. I think the end result serves our needs to today.

The Sulzberger Middle School kids have their own garden. That garden has been there at least seven years and they're coordinated with Doctor Daisy Sentry, now. I think she's in the science department. She's very conscientious with her group and they've been doing a garden for about seven years. They've been quite active in building and producing compost. One summer project, they did a compost bin. The kids, you know, they sawed, they cut, they axed, they hammered and they built what I consider a very practical and useful compost bin which is still in use today. They did our first pond in the garden which was very difficult for them. We sat down and let them do every, single stroke by themselves. And that was one of our first major youth program that I've ever worked on. I think they did a better job than even I could have done. And they were even more proud than I was. So that was pretty proud, proud.

You know once the kid gets your respect, it's amazing how easy and how fluid they can work and achieve. If you're not careful, you would think they're adults working. But you have to get their attention first and maintain it.


Changes in the neighborhood

I used to live one block away from the garden many years ago before the garden. Many people didn't even talk but as I walk and as many other gardeners walk through you can see them talking and people out you know conversing all over the place and that's attributable directly to their connect with the garden. So I would say that the garden has brought the neighborhood closer together. They look a little more for each other. So people that we don't even know watch the garden. Matter of fact I had about a week ago some little fellas came in the garden and they live about 3 blocks away, they got over the fence somehow. And the mother brought them back and made them bring back what they took out of the garden. And I saw the little fella today and he want to know did I have any work for him. I gave him a couple of dollars and he cleaned up outside of the garden, pick up the paper that the wind blew so I probably have a friend for life. I don't know. But that's how you foster relationships.

I would think the neighborhood changed 100% because of the garden. Because we have what we like to call a ripple effect. Nobody wants to be the worst looking garden or the worst looking yard in the city. So some people will start planting. And if your neighbor plants flowers and your yard looks bad, you'll next door and you'll plant some flowers. So right now our garden I would well not 100% but I would say 95% ripple effect covers about 5, 6 blocks around the garden, attributed directly to our garden.

We have something special and I know it.



Based on an interview in April 2002 by students in an MIT class on Media Technology, and Youth, and City Design and Development. Hayward died in 2009.