This October, Riverfront North Partnership staff along with members of the Bridesburg Riverfront Park Committee and State Representative Joe Hohenstein, visited two sites in Philadelphia renowned for design and beloved by the community, as part of a learning journey in preparation for the upcoming opening of the Bridesburg Riverfront Park. Both Bartram’s Garden in southwest Philadelphia and the new Discovery Center, in Strawberry Mansion, have evolved over the years. Though unique in their functions and approaches, both sites provided shared common takeaways on how to succeed as a useful civic space and how best to serve neighboring communities. In both locations we left understanding that the first shovel of construction is just the beginning of the community relationship. That going beyond the borders of the space is the most important and necessary step to building strong and successful partnerships.
Opened in 2018, the Discovery Center is a brand-new take on what was an existing community get-away. Hidden in the woods of East Fairmount Park, the Strawberry Mansion community used to have to climb fences to experience the closed access reservoir and peaceful woods hiding up on the hill. This access problem is analogous to the limited access to the Delaware River Bridesburg residents have faced for decades. After years of various designs and ideas emerging for the forgotten space in East Fairmount Park, a collaboration between the Pennsylvania Audubon Society and Outward Bound arose, and collectively enough funding was raised to create the beautiful new Discovery Center.
We were given a tour of the grounds by Philadelphia Outward Bound Executive Director Meg Wise, and Strawberry Mansion CDC President Tonnetta Graham. The center boasts a free museum area for kids interested in learning about the birds they may encounter on the grounds. There is also a large flexible meeting space that the community utilizes weekly for free neighborhood programming and community meetings. Beyond the building itself, there is a large floating dock on the massive reservoir used for the Outward Bound boating programs as well as fresh water mussel breeding. The most stunning feature of the Discovery Center is the large ropes course and tower used for Outward Bound team building.
Unlike the Discovery Center, Bartram’s Garden has existed and been open to the public for quite some time. In the past decade though, the mission and the relationship the space has to the neighborhood has morphed to be more inclusive and attentive to the community needs. Bartram’s is not only a national landmark encompassing 45 acres of Schuylkill riverfront wetland, meadow farm and historic buildings, but also an inviting civic space inspiring audiences of all ages to care for the natural world.
We toured the many facets of the Bartram’s grounds on bikes, first stopping at the river’s edge to hear about the increased water programming the organization has expanded in the past years. Free community boating and fishing has proved to be a successful program initiative for the organization to engage neighbors and encourage them to reconnect to a river they have been cut off from, much like the Bridesburg residents. Bartram’s is connected by a series of multi-modal trails, soon to be connected to the Schuylkill Banks trail.
On the north end we saw the space soon to be dedicated to local community group “Concrete Cowboys”, another initiative to use this public space for a community driven initiative. On the southern end, we were introduced to the massive farming operation, Sankofa Community Farm. This four acre farm employs local high school students as interns, produces food for the community and serves as in incubator for vegetable transplants across the city.
“Broken Promise Syndrome”
Because the realization of the Discovery Center took many decades, and the inclusion at Bartram’s garden took some time, the Strawberry Mansion and Southwest Philadelphia communities fell victim to the “Broken Promise Syndrome”. For years they were promised the moon and the stars by various groups, only to end up with nothing, so it has been a challenge for these neighborhoods to trust the groups managing these spaces. The relationships with local community groups continues to grow to ensure that all who want access to these facilities and programs located in their backyards can have it. In particular, the Strawberry Mansion CDC continues to pursue access for its community members. Bridesburg residents have faced a similar series of broken promises associated with their community’s open spaces, left vacant and abandoned by fleeing industry. With the upcoming opening of the riverfront park, and the continued inclusion of the community, we are hopeful to put an end to the broken promises.
3 TAKEAWAYS FROM THE TRIPS
1. Make spaces and programs that the community wants. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, let the community drive what the programming should be. Community needs may change with time, so continually check in with the neighbors as it changes and grows and shrinks, that the current needs are reflected in the programming and future plans for the civic space.
2. Concentration and investment in the youth of the community is important. At Bartram’s Garden the organization found success giving part time jobs in summer, and hosting art programming so teens have something to do. Youth investment in the community garden allows for personal investment in the space and nature in general. The Discovery Center hosts monthly free Saturday programming where kids from the community can try out rock wall, borrow binoculars and explore on their own or with guidance.
3. Go beyond your borders. Go outside the geography of your site, connecting with as many partners as possible and go beyond your organization’s traditional thinking.