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How Bartram’s Garden is using its historic mission for new work on the Schuylkill

RiverFest on the Schuylkill River. July 6, 2016 Category: FeaturedLongMethod

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Editor's note: The name of the John Bartram Association has been corrected. Edit 9/23 @ 12:35 p.m.
When your mission is old, it helps to go back to the beginning.

Look at Southwest Philadelphia’s remote 45-acre National Historic Landmark Bartram’s Garden, planted along the lower banks of the Schuylkill River and long viewed as distant and inaccessible to its neighbors. For the past few years, the John Bartram Association (JBA) has been trying to change that, by following its founding.

“When John Bartram established the farm, his orientation was entirely toward the river,” said Maitreyi Roy, JBA’s executive director. “The river was his highway.”

Nowadays, connecting neighbors with the river is a priority of JBA, Roy said. It’s an updated goal — accessibility to a new population — that would look plainly familiar to Bartram.

“The idea of reconnecting this community back to the river — this simple thing of getting on a kayak and being out on the river for a couple minutes — is really inspiring,” she said.

How is JBA doing it? They identified what their core assets are — proximity to the Schuylkill and to a range of different neighborhoods, a trend toward environmentalism, a need for understanding ecology and other sciences and a citywide reimagining of river access — and built programming to connect a new generation to its work, by asking what those people wanted.

For example, on this year’s hot and sunny Father’s Day, dozens flooded the shores for the garden’s RiverFest, an annual celebration of the river featuring a colorful boat parade and free public kayaking on the river.

It was just a taste of what JBA has been up to since Roy took over about four years ago. JBA’s mission is “pretty timeless,” she said — “to reconnect people with nature through art, science and utilizing the Bartram legacy to inspire people to be good stewards of their environments.”

From our Partners

Bartram's dock

Docks on the lower Schuylkill. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

When Roy first came on board, she attended a community meeting and met some of the garden’s direct neighbors.

“So few of them had come to the garden, and some didn’t even know we existed, which was shocking to me,” she said. “There are 2,000 neighbors within walking distance of the garden, and some of them hadn’t even been here.”

In her first few months, she focused on reaching out to the local community and asking them directly what they wanted out of the space, what type of programming they’d like to see. Out of those conversations came the development of the garden’s urban farm, where 60 families now come to garden, and an annual Easter egg hunt.

Support from the William Penn Foundation has allowed JBA to build its staff and develop more advanced programming. Some other initiatives include restoring John Bartram’s granddaughter’s 19th century garden, offering children’s programming and workshops, hosting outdoor movies during the summer and getting help from urban strategist Majora Carter to convene a community forum to brainstorm ways to improve the surrounding neighborhood.

Soon, Bartram’s Mile, a greenway in construction from the Gray’s Ferry Bridge to the river, will wind through the garden. The project is being completed as part of the Civic Commons initiative, an $11 million investment made by the Knight Foundation and, again, the William Penn Foundation (and matched by the city) surrounding five civic assets.

Bartram's mud kitchen

“Mud kitchen” at RiverFest. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

The initiative is meant to “encourage a park system, not a system of parks,” said Jennifer Mahar, senior director of civic initiatives at the Fairmount Park Conservancy, which is convening the local groups leading the individual projects. Philly is a test city for the national Civic Commons initiative, which means that other cities will be looking to us as they develop their own such local projects, Mahar said. The Bartram’s Mile project is at its midway point and will be complete by December 2017.

Roy considers the Mile’s convening organization “a key partner” in JBA’s efforts to revitalize the area. Another such partner is Philadelphia Waterborne, a nonprofit that teaches boatbuilding to youth. Several of the boats available for rowing at RiverFest were built by the students of the program, founded three years ago by Nick Pagon, a former teacher. 

It’s a new group that fits neatly with what JBA and the farm it cares for has worked to do for a century. Go back to your mission.

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