The black graffiti is now gone. So are the shattered bottles, weeds, and sprinkles of trash. And the once-faceless tower in Veterans Park is now engraved with a tribute to the men and women of the Pennsylvania Railroad who died in World War I.
Last Memorial Day, it wasn't so. That morning, Jim Kernaghan pulled over in his car on Girard Avenue near 31st Street and solemnly watched as a handful of men commemorated Brewerytown's fallen soldiers. Amid the park's trash and broken monuments, they taped small red, white, and blue flags and bunting to the marble tower. One man with a bushy white mustache and pot belly under his red, white, and blue shirt spoke kind words, then played Taps on his boom box.
The men saluted. Then came the national anthem.
After the ceremony, Kernaghan, 40, a former member of the Pennsylvania National Guard who lives nearby, introduced himself. He learned that the speaker, Joel Spivak, had been attending to the memorial every year for decades.
Spivak's four uncles served in the military. His father couldn't because of damaged eardrums. His mother, a former blues singer, performed in shows as chairwoman of the neighborhood flag-raising committee.
Spivak joined the Army when he was 19, "to do my duty." After six years in the Reserve, he studied architecture at Drexel University, and got married.
Along with the Girard Avenue site, he maintains two other lonely memorials.
One is in his South Philadelphia neighborhood at Third and Bainbridge Streets - its plaque is missing. The other, a boxy monument, sits at 37th and Lancaster in West Philly, across from Stan's Deli. The large plaque, once bronze, now green, honors James J. Cochran as a veteran of foreign war.
"He had to have some serious commendations," said Spivak, 70, eyeing the stone a few days before the holiday. He had just finished picking up coffee cups and cigarette butts in the surrounding garden.
He said he called the Department of Veterans Affairs for more information on Cochran, but it had no record of him.
"It's one of the sins of our country how we treat our veterans," Spivak said.
At some point, the ornate plate at Girard Avenue disappeared. Neighborhood lore says some desperate addict copped it for cash. The headstone saluting the efforts of "29th Ward Mothers, Gold Star Mothers, and Gold Star Wives," had been toppled.
At the Veterans Park ceremony last year, Kernaghan thought: "We really have to do something here."
He organized a team of volunteers, and with the help of the Fairmount Community Development Corp., raised money for a more respectable tribute. He also tracked down the landowner, CSX Railroad, with the hope that it would help maintain the memorial.
"Originally it was to be a centerpiece of the remembrance of veterans," Kernaghan said of the site. With all the redevelopment taking place, "we need to make it a focal point for the neighborhood."
The park along Girard Avenue is in the shadows of revitalization, across from shiny new flats going for $239,900, and long-abandoned houses. The fence behind it is scarred with graffiti. On the side of it is a large mural of "four American patriots" - Malcolm X, Ella Baker, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass - with the quotation: "We who believe in freedom cannot rest."
This Memorial Day, the restored park will be celebrated with ceremony. Along with the engraved tribute and the resurrected headstone, a flag will be lowered and raised on the new flagpole. Rosettes will plug the holes where the plaque once hung. A color guard from Overbrook High School will perform, and instead of the boom box, a professional bugler will blow out Taps.
Afterward, Kernaghan and Spivak will gather with the community over food, drinks, and music.
Spivak often referred to the park as "the abandoned war memorial." Now an engraved message reads: "Let all who pass here remember those who served in times of peril and whose bravery kept our nation strong and free."
"I'm really happy that the neighborhood is going to care for it," Spivak said. "I was always hoping for that."
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