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.”
This story is part of Star’s “The Blight Fight” series.