Members of the Philadelphia Youth Clef Club Jazz Ensemble, Lenora Early, founder of the non-profit John Coltrane House in Strawberry Mansion, John Johnson, head of SEPTA’s TWU 234 union, and Frances Jones, Assistant General Manager of Government Affairs at SEPTA celebrate the extension. (Photo by Andy Sharpe.)
While Philadelphia is famed for a number of attributes, it seems like the city never quite generates the attention it should for Fairmount Park. Unfortunately, many city residents don’t get the chance to enjoy the urban mega-park, which in many cases is not so far from their front porches. This is certainly true in Strawberry Mansion, which brushes up against East Fairmount Park.
With this in mind, a couple of nonprofits located in the park, Smith Memorial Playground and Outward Bound, are working with the Audubon Society and SEPTA to enhance access to the park for Strawberry Mansion residents.
Smith Memorial Playground is connecting Strawberry Mansion residents with relaxation and play options in the section of Fairmount Park across 33rd St. known as East Park. In fact, the elaborate children’s play-place celebrated its 114th birthday last weekend by ushering in a new SEPTA bus connection with Strawberry Mansion, Temple University and Kensington, via Route 3.
The Giant Wooden Slide at Smith Memorial Playground is also fun for adults. The slide was added to the playground in 1905 and was restored in 2005. (Photo via Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse)
The transit connection was a collaboration between SEPTA, the Uptown Entertainment Development Corporation and the playground, according to Meg Wise, executive director at Smith. Wise is very enthusiastic that SEPTA has replaced what used to be at least a .4 mile walk for Strawberry Mansion residents to get to Smith. “It’s huge for us,” Wise said. “We are really focused on cultivating an audience in North Philadelphia.”
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This means that children in Strawberry Mansion and other North Philadelphia neighborhoods have greatly improved access to “unstructured play” at Smith’s historic 16,000 sq. ft. 3-story playhouse and outdoor play modules. They will also have access to support groups like Ready, Set, Play, which is a facilitated playgroup for children and their parents.
While the SEPTA extension is big news for Smith, Smith has also been a host site for Bridging the Gaps, which is a Philadelphia-based program that provides health stations for low-income communities. In East Park, Bridging the Gaps is connecting Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) and University of the Sciences students with Strawberry Mansion residents. In keeping with the Playground’s theme, this health station promotes play through repurposed toys.
The extended route 3 will be open from 10AM to 4PM on weekends from June through September, according to an article by PlanPhilly.
Smith and its volunteers are also hard-at-work on a new play-place, made possible through a United States Green Building Council (USGBC) Legacy Project grant. Wise pointed out that the finished product will be featured in a video at the USGBC GreenBuild conference in Philadelphia this autumn. Finally, the Playground is embarking on a program thats links North and West Philadelphia homeless shelters, including Project H.O.M.E. and the Salvation Army’s Red Shield House, to free play in the park.
On the other side of East Park, Outward Bound and the Audubon Society of Pennsylvania are partnering to develop the tentatively named East Park Leadership and Conservation Center. This center would “create a place for Philadelphians, young people and adults too, to challenge themselves while they discover the outside world,” said Katie Pastuszek, executive director at Outward Bound.
Pastuszek said the center would be a free-of-charge place of education for residents of adjacent neighborhoods and a 50-acre preserved space supporting a diversity of avian and other wildlife species for the enjoyment of visitors, both of which will be convenient to Strawberry Mansion residents via the bus extension.
There have been some concerns in Strawberry Mansion that the center would not be sufficiently accessible to residents, but both Outward Bound and the Audubon Society of Pennsylvania have been committed to working with residents and community groups, said Phil Wallis, executive director of the PA chapter of the Audubon Society.
Most recently, the nonprofits worked with community groups to hash out a Public Access Plan as part of their Alternative Use Plan process. It looks like their efforts are paying off with many in the community.
“We’ve been on the ground floor with the Audubon Society,” said Tonetta Graham, executive director of the Strawberry Mansion CDC and strong supporter of the center.
As a part of the plan, Outward Bound and Audubon have proposed a new 2-story 17,000 sq. ft. building in an area that’s currently walled off to the public. While this building would be an exception to the city’s Open Lands Protection Ordinance, it’s an exception that park advocacy groups, including the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, generally support. Pastuszek has been told to presume City Council approval for the project in mid-September. Pastuszek and Wallis estimate that, if all goes well, the East Park Leadership and Conservation Center will be able to sign a lease on the land between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.-30-
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