|By Bobbi Booker
The Book Report
|James Stanley is not your ordinary gardener. Whether he’s cleaning up and beautifying vacant lots in West Philadelphia or planting flowers throughout the Mann Center’s 13-acre property, Stanley gives more than 100 percent to his passion. As a result, his gardens flourish along with the community around them.
Stanley owns S-Kids Auto Body in West Philadelphia, but more than anything he’s committed to his community. Having grown up on a farm in Macon, Ga., he says working in the soil makes him most comfortable.
“That has escalated into what it is now,” he explained. “I started with a little lot beside my shop, and in doing this little lot it sort of got to the point that every time I see a little space I wanted to beatify it.”
In 1991, Stanley moved to his new home in the Parkside community. Although he sought to maintain his business as an auto body professional, he encountered resistance from the neighborhood.
“When moving to Parkside I had made some promises of the things that I would do to win the people over, because they did not want a body shop in here,” he said. “So I had to fight for it.”
In the course of his battles he met and befriended Ella Francis, then the founding president of the Parkside Association. Stanley committed to a beautification plan for the neighborhood.
The plan literally blossomed into a series of formerly blighted lots that Stanley transformed into magnificent gardens. In addition to landscaping the Mann Center, Stanley has two other standout gardens.
The Ella Francis Garden at 5200 Parkside is semi-private, while another plot at 52 nd and Jefferson is open at all times.
Stanley started on the Jefferson Street garden first in 1993, but when a neighboring building collapsed and partially destroyed it he started working on the Parkside location.
Both locations have won first-place awards from the Horticultural Society, and Stanley is proud to note that one of the three gardens he created on Parkside Avenue is featured on a city tour list.
“I call him ‘The Father of Parkside,’” said the garden’s namesake, Ella Francis.
As a community activist Francis spent years helping the residents of Parkside renovate their neighborhood. She also served as a board member of Philadelphia Green, the nation’s largest urban greening program, supporting community gardens, urban parks and public landscapes.
The vacant lot that was converted into the Ella Francis Garden in the 1980s initially was a senior citizen vegetable garden and sitting area. When Stanley agreed to take over its care, Frances said she was delighted.
“Since then it has been out of sight, because his imagination and creativity have made it most outstanding,” said Francis. “It is now a place we can proudly say to people who come in the area to go by and take a look at it.
It was the garden’s outstanding beauty that caught the eye of a Parkside area businessman five years ago.
When Peter B. Lane, president and CEO of The Mann Center for the Performing Arts, met Stanley at a West Parkside Culture and Opportunity Center board meeting, he shared with him the needs at The Mann. Stanley responded immediately by walking the grounds of the Mann Center and making a landscape proposal. Lane was so impressed, he hired him immediately and has been singing his praises ever since.
“We are so lucky to have Mr. Stanley as part of our team at the Mann. He has made a tremendous impact on the center by adding so much beauty to our grounds,” said Lane. “His passion for horticulture has been shared with thousands of visitors, and his contribution to the West Philadelphia community is invaluable.”
Stanley formed another company – Urban Scapes Inc. in West Philadelphia – and hired a crew to assist him as the sole landscaper at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Fairmount Park for the last five years.
He and his crew maintain the center’s sprawling lawns; he designs and plants flower beds and places large flowerpots along the walkways and dreams about the lushness he can maintain on this vast property. It’s a year-round job for Stanley, too. In the winter he plows snow and even helps out doing handyman’s work.
It is apparent that gardening is his first love.
“I would buy something to plant, before I would buy food,” Stanley said. And as proof of his dedication, he has been known to stay at the Mann Center past midnight on many occasions to water his greenery.
“I love my plants. And water is the life of them!” he said.
Stanley’s passion for gardening is matched only by his commitment to the community. Over the last 15 years, he has taken it upon himself to beautify several vacant lots in his Parkside neighborhood. He also has mentored many youngsters, who have worked for him by keeping the neighborhood clean –picking up trash and planting in the empty lots – to earn a few extra dollars.
“A lot of the kids were not used to the beauty here,” said Stanley. “For me, giving something back to the neighborhood, bringing the kids in here to work with this beauty, gives them something else to do besides walking back and forth to the store.”
Stanley, 59, is no stranger to hard work.
In Georgia he and his family grew corn, peanuts, potatoes and other crops, and raised pigs, chickens and other animals.
In 1967, he followed his sweetheart to Philadelphia, where they were married. Although now divorced, he’s a dedicated father to six children.
At his body shop at 52 nd and Heston streets in West Philadelphia, Stanley specializes in custom paint jobs.
When he’s not juggling the work of two businesses, he travels to Georgia, where he helps care for his elderly mother.
“As I was thinking about this, I figured it was coming out of me in my late age,” mused Stanley. “But the love of gardening has always been there; the love of flowers and the beauty of flowers.”
Today, to step into the Ella Francis Garden is like a stepping into a wonderful picture book. There are colors and fragrant blossoms everywhere as yellow and white butterflies flutter about. Two ponds full of lily pads and frogs sits at the garden edge and are home to dozens of goldfish and koi – as well as ally cats which, if they can avoid the traps, like to fish there.
A peach tree bearing dozens of the fruits is also home to a gaggle of Junebugs suckling on its sweet nectar. The formerly uprooted weeping willow has been restored, offering cool shaded comfort to visitors.
“It’s a beautiful sanctuary and it’s transformed our community,” said longtime resident Yvette Smalls. “As you go by you get this sense of peace and feel in touch with nature. I’m impressed with it. I’m in awe every time I see it.
Stanley’s gardens are home not only to the usual annuals and perennials, but exotic plants as well, including 12-foot-high elephant’s ear plants that have been recognized as the city’s tallest.
“There’s a lot of hidden beauty that people don’t even know is here,” said Stanley.
The gardens give him comfort from the stress of his regular workdays.
“I need something to play around with and let off my frustrations,” said Stanley, who has nicknamed the flowers his “ladies
“I love my ‘ladies,’” says Stanley as his stands amid the flowers. “I try to be good to them and they’re good to me.”