By Melissa O’Brien
In the heart of Philadelphia's Norris Square neighborhood, amidst the hustle and bustle of urban life, lies a hidden oasis -- Las Parcelas -- a collection of garden spaces, created by women in a dedicated neighborhood organization, Grupo Motivos, in collaboration with the Norris Square Neighborhood Project and PHS. This vibrant community garden is not just a place to grow plants; it's a sanctuary where people from diverse backgrounds come together to nurture their roots, both literal and metaphorical. In this interview, we had the privilege of speaking with Iris Brown, a remarkable individual whose journey is intertwined with the history of Las Parcelas and the community it serves.
"I believe that preserving our culture is crucial, and I've worked hard to bring Puerto Rico to these gardens." -Iris Brown
"I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and came to the United States later in life," says Iris. She recalls her initial encounter with Natalie Kempner, one of the founders of the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, who happened to be the teacher for her daughter Nitza. "It became a friendship, and I've been involved with Norris Square since the very beginning when it didn't even have a name."
The early days of Norris Square Neighborhood Project were humble, with Iris reminiscing about their first summer program held on a porch, away from many occupied apartments. "PHS's involvement and a grant helped us remodel the place," Iris explains. "I've been with Norris Square from the start, through school programs, summer programs, and more." She helped create the six urban gardens, including Las Parcelas, that represent and embody the diversity of the Puerto Rican culture and West African diasporas in Philadelphia.
Iris's deep-rooted connection to the neighborhood is evident when she reveals, "My family and my children grew up here. We've been in this neighborhood for over 40 years."
In Las Parcelas, the largest of the six Norris Square Neighborhood Project’s community gardens, each gardener cultivates a unique assortment of plants, influenced by their cultural backgrounds. Iris enthusiastically lists some of her own crops, including pigeon peas, cilantro, peppers, and herbs for making sofrito. "It's all about preserving our heritage and culture," she adds.
For Iris, the gardens aren't just a hobby; they're an integral part of her life. "The gardens are like family to me," she says. After retiring from her career, she returned to them with even more determination to preserve her cultural heritage. "I believe that preserving our culture is crucial, and I've worked hard to bring Puerto Rico to these gardens."
Iris's passion lies in helping people connect with their roots, regardless of their origin. "It's important for people to connect with their heritage, even if they're far from home," she says. "The gardens hold history, beauty, and most importantly, they're a place where everyone feels welcome."
The gardens transcend mere social connections; they foster a sense of belonging and family. "We cook, make coffee, teas, and use herbs for medicinal purposes," Iris explains. "We have workshops and music. It's about keeping our culture alive, especially as our neighborhood changes due to development."
Las Parcelas stands as a testament to Iris's dedication to preserving her Hispanic heritage and sharing it with others. "Our garden, now focused on honoring the native people of Puerto Rico, holds a lot of history and beauty," she says with pride. "I hope people learn about us and visit. We're ready for tours and visitors because we want to share what we have here with the rest of the world!"
As Las Parcelas celebrates its 50th anniversary, it continues to flourish as a symbol of unity and cultural preservation in a rapidly changing world. Iris's commitment to nurturing both plants and community roots is an inspiration for all who visit this remarkable oasis in Philadelphia.
The PHS Community Gardens program is supported in part by a grant from The Albert M. Greenfield Foundation, the City of Philadelphia’s Division of Housing and Community Development, and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.