With trees in bloom and birds chirping, dogs merrily walking and children happily playing, Jefferson Square Park would seem like any other neighborhood park in the city. But it has a history all its own. It did not begin as the perky park it appears to be now.
No more than a decade ago, it was in a state of decay, with the surrounding negative culture infiltrating it. Local government action nearly transformed the park area into an enclosed recreational facility.
“The park was in really bad shape when I first saw it,” says Michael Toklish, president of the Friends of Jefferson Square Park. “There were heaps of trash, bloody mattresses, abandoned cars, drug gangs were here… When I first moved here, I didn’t really realize it was a park. I just thought it was an empty lot.”
The park had fallen prey to the foreclosures of the surrounding factories and warehouses in the area. During the turn of the century, when the park saw its high times in revitalization, the industrial revolution brought success and a bleak future for the park. But when the multiple factories in the area, including a Bonin and Morris factory that produced canons during the Civil War and porcelain in peace time, died away, so did the spirit of the park.
“It wasn’t easy in the beginning, because the drug gangs were literally there side by side [with us] while we were trying to clean up needles,” says Toklish.
Neighbors who formed the Friends of Jefferson Square, a community organization to promote the well-being of the park, proudly recruited people to join their efforts. And it worked; in the early 1990s state and city government took notice, providing funding needed for refurbishing projects.
Of the over $19,000 the state government spent on the upkeep of state and local parks, according to the Pennsylvania government 2009- 2010 budget, about $3,000 went to Jefferson Square Park, for the nearly $80,00 worth of renovations completed, says Toklish. These renovations included new sidewalks and several turn-of-the-century lampposts, for lighted evening strolls.
“City and state officials were all in support of us; no one wanted to see the park end,” adds Toklish.
Since the start of the rallying in the early nineties, the park has been able to raise$1 million for improvements to the park. Furnishing the park in completely historically accurate pieces takes in some of the cost.
The park is rich with history. The early 1990s is not the first time the government has found interest in the grounds, either. Though the park was built in the village of Southwark in the 1820s, it was used during the Civil War. The connection between Northern soldiers and those marching into the South, Washington Avenue had troops marching up and down in the thousands. The park then served as an encampment and parade ground, to celebrate the successes of the Union Army.
In the 1870s, the city commissioned a designer to layout plans for the park. Ironically, the same plans that were used to create Rittenhouse Square were mimicked and copied almost exactly to recreate Jefferson Square Park. These were called the Rittenhouse plans, creating a mini-Rittenhouse Square in the Southwark section of the city.
But the park changed dramatically. “When we first came down here, it used to be a park where people came to get high,” says Michael Harris, a member of the maintenance staff who has lived in the neighborhood for over 10 years. “They used to have sex in the park… [it] has changed immensely since it started here.”
To stop the demise of the park, the government was not the only one to take notice. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society outfitted the Friends of Jefferson Square Park with not only funding but also resources to make their park grow.
“The Philadelphia Parks Revitalization Project reaches out,” says Toklish. “To friends groups and gives them help, not only financial help, but they send arborists, landscapers… help in getting grant applications…”
Of the nearly 200 parks in the city, about 50 parks are participating members of this program, including Jefferson Square Park.
“[The park] becomes the living room of the community,” says Toklish.
The park takes advantage of that sense of community South Philadelphia residents have by hosting multiple events each year. This past fall, Jefferson Square Park joined with Phrequency, a local music blog and Web site in Philadelphia, to hold a concert. Coming in 2011 will be a Civil War reenactment, including a traveling museum, complete with the works of books, audio and memorabilia. Throughout the year, the park hosts clean-ups as well as concert and movies series in the summertime.
“It’s wonderful to have this kind of oasis with green and trees,” says David Allen, who has been living in the neighborhood for the past 10 years. “In the middle of the city, it’s just really nice to have a sort of refuge like this.”