Planting a dream

Joe Calta­girone, in blue, looks on as little Emma “works” in the com­munity tulip garden at Tulip and East Cum­ber­land streets. Calta­girone cre­ated the garden 20 years ago. See im­age gal­lery at right for more pho­tos. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / STAR PHO­TOS

On Tulip Street, Joe Calta­girone has for 20 years ten­ded to a vi­brant com­munity garden — of tulips, nat­ur­ally. Loc­als say its cre­ation is a sign that beauty and change con­tin­ue to bloom in Kens­ing­ton. See im­age gal­lery at right for more pho­tos.

This story is part of Star’s “The Blight Fight” series. For our last “Blight Fight” story, click here.

In a breath­tak­ing and col­or­ful patch of earth at Tulip and East Cum­ber­land streets in Kens­ing­ton last week, a tiny girl in a pink coat and hat frol­icked through bright red tulips, gig­gling as she pre­ten­ded to push a gi­ant wheel­bar­row filled with green and purple blooms.

Her moth­er looked on, smil­ing along with oth­er neigh­bors, young and old.

One man, though, was smil­ing the biggest of all.

Joe Calta­girone was see­ing firsthand last Fri­day the joy his com­munity garden was bring­ing to neigh­bors that day, as the flowers had just bloomed for the sea­son in an ex­plo­sion of fra­grant reds, pinks, greens and yel­lows.

What was once two small aban­doned lots is now a pic­tur­esque neigh­bor­hood oas­is, out­fit­ted with a white pick­et fence, a swinging bench on a brick patio, met­al tubs filled with soil and green­ery and a proud Amer­ic­an flag — quaint items fit, it seems, for a Nor­man Rock­well paint­ing.

Life im­it­at­ing art, in fact, was part of Calta­girone’s goal.

“It’s about beauty, about cre­at­ing a Nor­man Rock­well-like scene here, with the buck­ets, the swing, the flowers,” Calta­girone — who neigh­bors call “Joe Cal” — said. One of Rock­well’s famed paint­ings is titled “Spring Flowers.”

Then Calta­girone poin­ted to the little girl, no more than three years old, play­ing in the flowers.

“That’s my goal,” he said. “That’s my pur­pose. I dream that little kids will say one day, ‘In my neigh­bor­hood, there was this beau­ti­ful garden with a pick­et fence at the end of my block.’”

In 1993, Calta­girone, who lives ad­ja­cent to the garden on E. Cum­ber­land St., de­cided to clean up the empty lots where the garden now sits. With the help of the com­munity — the garden also lies with­in the bound­ar­ies of the Olde Rich­mond Civic As­so­ci­ation — he cleaned the grounds and the side of the build­ing that stands above them, which was covered in graf­fiti.

He en­lis­ted the help of the Neigh­bor­hood Gar­dens As­so­ci­ation, a city non­profit that sup­ports com­munity-man­aged gar­dens and green spaces. The NGA, Calta­girone said, helped him with ne­ces­sary pa­per­work, in­sur­ance and oth­er is­sues, as well as fund­ing things like the pick­et fence and paint.

Calta­girone said he’s far from a nat­ur­al green thumb.

“Everything I touch dies,” he said with a hearty laugh. “But I saw a weed grow­ing out of that wall. If that could grow there, I thought, ‘I can do this.’”

Cathy San­tos, who lives nearby, said the garden is a sign that things are “look­ing up” in Kens­ing­ton.

“People say, ‘Oh, you really live in Kens­ing­ton?’ But to put this oas­is here, it’s in­dic­at­ive of the neigh­bor­hood. People are re­build­ing here,” she said.

“Now, whenev­er I see a va­cant lot I think, ‘Why doesn’t some­body put a garden here?’” San­tos con­tin­ued. “This is a labor of love. There’s col­or all year. Whenev­er there’s stress in my day, I come by here.”

Calta­girone said each year the com­munity works to hold “tulip fest­ivals” in the garden, and he’s ar­ranged for dif­fer­ent ele­ments of cel­eb­ra­tion, like hav­ing high school bands play mu­sic dur­ing the fest­ivals. This year, he said, he’s con­sid­er­ing ar­ran­ging a Fourth of Ju­ly party in the garden.

Even in hun­dred-de­gree heat, Calta­girone said, he puts in “a lot of work” year-round to main­tain the garden. He’s still work­ing on the brick patio un­der the swinging bench. He plans to fill it with ce­ment to keep weeds from grow­ing in the cracks.

Mi­chael Ken­ney, whose house dir­ectly over­looks the garden, called it “a work of art.”

“Any­thing at all that adds beauty to an urb­an neigh­bor­hood…what can I say? I get to see this garden every morn­ing. Joe has ad­ded di­men­sion to my morn­ing,” Ken­ney said.

Calta­girone, who has worked for the Phil­adelphia Mari­ott hotel for 17 years, said the best re­ward for his work is the re­ac­tion from people who pass the garden each time it blooms.

“I was out here one day, and there are some­times gangs that walk by. One gang came by, a bunch of hood­lum guys, and the head of the gang looked at me and goes, [in a growl­ing, in­tim­id­at­ing voice] ‘nice garden,’” Calta­girone said, laugh­ing.

“We needed this,” he af­firmed.

Calta­girone pur­chased and lives in the house in which he grew up, and said the neigh­bor­hood has gone “ab­so­lutely wild” with pos­it­ive change in the past sev­er­al years.

“I love what’s hap­pen­ing in this neigh­bor­hood,” he said. “This neigh­bor­hood took a long time to come up…but it’s fi­nally come up.”

Come up, maybe, like spring­time flowers?

“Yeah,” Calta­girone said. “Like flowers.”

Man­aging Ed­it­or Mi­kala Jam­is­on can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at mjam­is­

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