15-year dream now reality in East Mount Airy

Posted: December 30, 2013

ONE COULD argue that 15 years is a long time to fight for something, especially when the "thing" in question is overgrown woodland.

But, then, one never spoke with Arlene Bennett and her neighbors in East Mount Airy.

"We're a special community here," Bennett said. "We don't see each other every day, but you let something threaten our land and we gather instantly."

That drive is what led the Wissahickon East Project, for which Bennett is the treasurer, to succeed in its founding principle: To bring a six-acre plot of land between Cresheim Valley Drive and Anderson Street near the Cresheim Creek back into the city's fold from the developers who owned it.

That fight began in the late '90s, when local residents got wind that developer DeSouza Brown was looking to build a condo complex on the creek and the land around it. It ended Dec. 7, when a group of about 70 volunteers held the space's first official cleanup, blazing the first trail in its new use as a "passive park."

"We've been working so hard to get this, it's hard to believe we finally have reached this point," said Elizabeth Martens, the Wissahickon East Project's co-chairwoman. "But we have a lot more to do before this becomes the personal park we've envisioned."

That work includes reversing years of damage - both natural (erosion, invasive-species growth) and man-made (illegal dumping) - that the area sustained while it waited in limbo, Martens said.

"Nature abhors a vacuum; when land is uncared for, it attracts these negative elements," she said.

So community members spent more than a decade fighting these elements, traveling door-to-door, organizing packed meetings and forming the nonprofit project.

"Frankly, we were impressed by the fortitude and determination of the neighbors that stuck with it for years," said Mark Focht, the first deputy commissioner for the city's Parks and Recreation Department. "It was obvious they were in it for the long haul."

Focht and the Parks Department got involved in 2006, when the project and its members helped to get a historical easement on the land, barring all development.

At that point, Focht said, it was clear DeSouza Brown was ready to transfer the six acres into new hands.

"They'd had it since the '70s; I think they just realized that if they donated it, they could see the ones who really cared for it get use out of it."

And so, after five years of helping the project's members cut through read tape, Focht notified them in October that the six acres were the latest addition to the Fairmount Park system.

Now, with help from the Friends of the Wissahickon preservation group, the project's member are looking ahead to a new year of progress.

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