When his mother got sick in 2006, Michael Burch got reacquainted with the Parkside neighborhood of his boyhood. He'd commute from Drexel Hill to take care of her and notice how the area had changed — more vacant lots and abandoned buildings and next to no one walking through West Fairmount Park, where he played football in the 1970s. When his mother died, his plan was to fix up the family home and sell it.
But Burch, 59, felt drawn to the sleepy charm of the historic neighborhood. He noticed other people starting to return and told his wife he wanted to move back. And he did.
"I looked around and I was, like, 'You know, it's really not so bad around here,'" said Burch, the director of youth programs at the Franklin Institute, who also runs the Parkside Journal, a neighborhood online newspaper. "This is a neighborhood that's changing. People are moving back; people are invested in this community again."
On Wednesday the Fairmount Park Conservancy officially unveiled a $5.4 million facelift to the portion of the park that faces neighbors on Parkside Avenue. (The park was the hub of the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1876). Its new edge has 68 trees, a walking path, rain garden and big wooden porch swings. Before the changes, neighbors would often drag folding chairs across Parkside Avenue to have somewhere to sit — or forgo the park altogether.
"The goal was to make a better connection between the community and the park," said Jamie Gauthier, executive director of Fairmount Park Conservancy. "Residents there have a tremendous benefit in that they have the park right outside of their front doors, but it was kind of a large, vast inactivated space."
The conservancy's improvements were paid for through a gift from the William Penn Foundation and the Knight Foundation as part of the Re-imagining the Civic Commons initiative. They come at a time when developers are starting to take notice of Parkside's eponymous location and as residents organize to ensure that they have input in any changes coming down the road.
"If I've learned anything looking at other neighborhoods around the city, it's that neighborhoods that are changing need a strong organization to steer and guide those changes and to get residents integrated and invested in those changes early," said Christopher Scott, who helped start the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corp. about four years ago and now chairs its board.
Neighborhood groups are working on plans for farmers markets and movie nights in the park, as well as home repair workshops. (The average age of homes sold in Parkside over the last two years is 96, and residents struggle with upkeep and restoration costs, Scott said.)
A second, $8 million park renovation will begin in spring 2019. Plans focus on improving pedestrian safety and access from busy Parkside Avenue. A quarter-mile ice skating loop, large play area, and restrooms are also in the works.
"This is an area in general where there are a lot of children but there aren't a lot of play amenities, especially free ones," Gauthier said.
The play space also will feature a 30-foot replica of a Corliss steam engine to pay homage to the machine that powered the exhibits at the Centennial Exposition in 1876.
Parkside is known as the city's Centennial Neighborhood for its connection to the exposition. It was once home to some of the most affluent people in the city, who lived in Victorian brick mansions lining the park. The showcases fell into disrepair following "white flight" and disinvestment after WWII but have largely been restored in recent years.
Today, the average household median income in Parkside is about $26,000 a year, according to census data. The number of homes sold has increased steadily since the market started to recover in 2012. The median sale price grew from $27,000 in 2013 to $35,000 last year, according to data compiled by Kevin Gillen, senior economic adviser to Houwzer LLC.
"The growth in prices far outpaces that of either the city or West Philly," Gillen said. "With investments in public spaces and the general wave of revitalization going on … there's a number of factors that would favor the revitalization of that corridor."
Chris Spahr, executive director of the Centennial Parkside CDC, said developers are buying up properties and sitting on them. He thinks they see development in nearby Mantua, and a new apartment complex, Centennial Village, going up near the ParkWest shopping center, as promising. The zoo has also long talked about wanting to add a SEPTA rail stop.
"I think they realize this is a neighborhood that's so strategically located," Spahr said. "It's in the middle of a cultural district, with the zoo and Please Touch and the Mann Center down the road. It has the park; it's near I-76. I think it just takes one developer to take that risk, and the rest will probably follow."
Developer David Groverman bought the former Spiro's Pizza at the corner of 40th and Girard in Parkside earlier this year. The 47-year-old restaurant was the last standing business on the once-bustling 40th Street corridor. He wants to rent the ground floor of the building to a restaurant and convert the top portion into nine luxury apartments.
Groverman, 66, of Blue Bell, sees potential in the corridor for both residents, who currently have to leave the neighborhood to get groceries, and for visitors, limited to the food options inside the museum or zoo.
"It's quiet now, but you're going to look around and all of the sudden, it'll be a happening place," Groverman said. "Commercial gentrification doesn't hopscotch. It goes to the next community over. So you've got Powelton Village, which is a hot neighborhood, you've got Brewerytown, and now you've got the other side of Parkside. This should be a no-brainer."
Jerry Fokas, the former owner of Spiro's, thinks any changes will happen more slowly. "I kind of think the residents of Parkside are looking for development, but they're looking more for boutique businesses, small businesses, which means a slower rate of change," he said. "I think the park will always be the number one attraction."
Sitting on one of the new benches on a recent afternoon, Callalily Cousar, head of the East Parkside Residents Association, said she was encouraged by the activity in the park. Kids on Razor scooters sped past a jogger, and a couple pushing a stroller headed to the Please Touch Museum.
But Cousar, a resident since 1964, doesn't want the improvements in the park to mask ongoing issues such as illegal dumping and abandoned properties. Parkside doesn't have much crime, but the blight can give off the perception it does, she said.
"Go a few blocks back into the neighborhood," Cousar said. "Look at the cracked sidewalks. When's the city going to fix those? Ask our kids sitting around what programs we have for them. I can't get a loan to repair my house. I want this neighborhood to improve, but I want it to improve for the community and with the community."