La Finquita's farewell

Feature story for PlanPhilly, June 4, 2018

It started with a lock and a “No Trespassing” sign. They appeared one day on the fence at Lawrence and Master streets, next to a hand-painted sign reading, “La Finquita,” or little farm.

That winter, in 2016, the group of neighbors who had been tending this North Philadelphia garden for years cut the lock and kept on planting. New locks appeared. It was the start of a legal battle for possession of the property that concluded last month with a settlement.

Spoiler alert: The gardeners lost their lot. La Finquita is gone now, but questions remain about what adverse possession, or “squatter’s law,” should mean in practice. In Pennsylvania, this legal principle allows someone who has maintained and improved a neglected piece of property for at least 21 years to gain legal ownership of it. Despite a long, recorded history of community use, La Finquita could not easily claim its land.

It’s a situation many informal gardens could find themselves in. As Philadelphia’s real estate market continues to heat up, La Finquita won’t be the last to face such a challenge.

“The fact that we settled doesn’t mean this was legal or all right,” said Jessica Noon, one of La Finquita’s main volunteers and a key figure in the legal battle. “The whole vacant-land issue here, the city is so far behind.”

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