From Eyesores To Centerpieces In Restoring Community Parks, Neighbors Make The Difference

Posted: May 25, 2001

JUST FIVE years ago, Carroll Park in West Philadelphia was dark, dirty and dangerous, providing hospitality for what Carroll Park Neighbors' president Doris Gwaltney calls "the element" - drug dealers, mostly, but also muggers and rapists.

The park was, in another of Gwaltney's apt descriptions, "a putrefying sore."

Today, though, Carroll Park is the center of the neighborhood. Young children from three local day care centers toddle on the tot lot. Seniors play chess and checkers and walk its perimeter. School children form a park patrol on Wednesday afternoons. Churches hold revivals there. Families picnic. In summer, there are concerts. One family even held its funeral repast there.

Other city parks can tell similar stories: Vernon Park in Germantown, Gorgas Park in Roxborough, Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia, Elmwood Park in Southwest, Norris Square in Kensington. All have gone from eyesore to centerpiece.

What made the difference? People. With grants from nonprofit organizations, donations from individuals and businesses, plus help from city government, some community groups have transformed their parks.

But these successes are bright spots in a generally dim picture of serious neglect of the city's parks - both the expansive natural lands parks and the scores of neighborhood parks that dot the city.

Philadelphia's parks may suffer from a lack of funds, but they are blessed with sizeable human resources - more than 30,000 volunteers who organize cleanups, plant flower beds and reclaim stream beds.

But there is only so much volunteers can do. They cannot, for example, open or build additional restrooms for Fairmount Park, which now only offers a paltry 11 for thousands of visitors. They can't patrol the parks, combat dog litter or remove graffiti on a daily basis. While Philadelphia's park volunteers have helped stretch inadequate resources, Philadelphia cannot continue to rely so heavily on them.

The Friends of Philadelphia Parks organization recently has stepped up its advocacy efforts, meeting with City Council members and organizing a presence at budget hearings. It's now time for the city government to respond.

Much of our attention in this series has been focused on the parks administered by the Fairmount Park Commission, which include 64 regional and neighborhood parks. The city's Department of Recreation administers 75 parks, including Carroll, which are mostly small enclaves in the neighborhoods, the "front yards" of rowhouse communities, places where some city kids mark their first and only experience of nature.

Smaller parks don't have smaller problems, just somewhat different ones. During the city's tough economic times in the 1980s, reduced budgets meant the department couldn't maintain its recreation centers, let alone grass and trees. Many parks became the sort of ugly community wound that Carroll Park was.

For some parks, that's changing because of a unique partnership between the Department of Recreation and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Philadelphia Green Parks Revitalization program.

Now active in 24 department parks, Philadelphia Green provided help in organizing neighbors and expertise in how to go about the reclamation, plus monetary grants for projects decided upon by the community groups.

The Department of Recreation did its part by adding 28 seasonal maintenance employees. These part-time workers, many from the community, work from April to October picking up litter and removing graffiti.

This is what the process taught the participants: Community involvement is an essential ingredient to reclaiming a park, but by itself it isn't enough.

Carroll Park Neighbors are a formidable force, as are many other neighborhood park groups, but that force might have been frustrated without private grants and public funds for tree pruning, plantings, playground equipment. And even with dedicated volunteers, paid maintenance staff is critical.

Reclaiming a park isn't easy and it isn't cheap, but the profit far exceeds the cost because parks are the most "democratic" of city institutions - open to young and old, rich and poor, active or passive.

The connections between people and parks constitute a powerful potential. It's a common story: The guy who sat quietly in the back at meetings eventually came forward to lead a project. Acquaintances who barely knew each other became friends through shared work. You couldn't come up with a better description of "community."

Even though Carroll Park's guardians daily face shards of glass from broken bottles, trash, prostitutes, they don't take the litter and vandalism personally. They just clean it up.

The program has been so successful that now its participants travel to other cities to give advice on building partnerships between community, nonprofits and government.

Bit their success shouldn't obscure the fact that city neglect contributed to many of the problems in the parks in the first place. And those problems can't be solved without substantial government involvement. *

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