Brenna McGee packed up her fishing gear on a recent weekend and headed out from her North Philadelphia home with her boyfriend. Their destination?
Drexel Hill, an oft-congested pocket of Upper Darby Township. Historically, not the first place locals would think of when looking for a secluded respite.
But that is changing, residents say, propelled by neighborhood passion and a new, one-mile stretch of trail that is providing some much-needed green space. This section of the Darby Creek Trail opened earlier this summer, not long before McGee and her boyfriend, Bryan English, made their visit. McGee, 34, was drawn by the opportunity to fish for trout in the creek, but others go there to walk, bike, even play with their dogs at the Kent Dog Park, which sits by the Lindbergh Bridge at one end of the trail.
"It's nice that people can have this area that doesn't feel like it's in the suburbs," said McGee, a Lansdowne native who hung out at Darby Creek as a kid and lived in Upper Darby in her early 20s.
"It's adorable," said Kirstyn Engler, who lives about a mile from the trail in Drexel Hill's Garrettford neighborhood. "It's been very crucial to the morale of the area."
Walking trails, dog parks, and green space can be found across the Philadelphia suburbs. But for suburban communities closer to the city, such enclaves are at a premium. A one-mile trail may sound inconsequential, but this single project had been in the works for decades before its June opening, officials said. For years, studies have suggested that any access to green space can improve well-being. And since the ribbon-cutting on the new Upper Darby trail, residents have taken to social media to proclaim their love for the trail and their desire to ensure that it remains a vital part of the community.
"The Darby Creek had always been something that was there, but there was never a legal way to get in there," said John McBlain, chairman of Delaware County Council. "We didn't invent trees there. We just opened it up to the public."
Darby Creek used to be a place where teenagers would hang out and sometimes get into trouble. For a while, there was "a lot of police activity" related to underage drinking and drug use in that one-mile stretch, McBlain said. There were even a few violent crimes, he said. But with the completion of the trail, which McBlain estimated cost $1 million, residents can now enjoy the creek more safely.
On community Facebook groups, residents post videos of their young children taking in the views — the waterfall is a highlight for the little ones — and give others' recommendations on how to spend their time there.
Kristen Clifton, 27, of Clifton Heights, learned of the trail from a Facebook group.
"Where is this?" Clifton remembered thinking when she saw the social-media post. "I don't know of any trails I don't have to travel to."
In past years, she would take her young daughter and stepsons to the Haverford Reserve or to parks in Media. Now, she can walk one mile to the creek trail.
When she and her children visited it earlier this summer, they ran into three other families, all of whom "seemed to be really excited" about the new space, she said.
For some in the community, the stretch of pavement is about more than just having another place to exercise or walk the dog. They see it as a step toward combating the stereotypes that still paint Upper Darby as a poorer and more crime-ridden part of the mostly affluent western suburbs.
"People still have a negative perception of the area," said Nicholas Hoyt, who lives in Garrettford. "That can be tough to shake."
Even some of Hoyt's childhood friends refer to moving out of Upper Darby as "getting out," he said. Hoyt doesn't understand that notion. In fact, he said, he doesn't want to leave the area, especially with new developments like the trail.
"I think the community really wants to change people's perception," he said.
The trail's first few weeks weren't perfect. As has been an issue in other areas of the township, residents say, trash piled up in parts of the trail within its first few weeks.
Engler, who walks her dog there a couple of times a week, said she noticed lots of food and bait containers. But once she brought those concerns to the attention of others on Facebook, they acted fast, coming out in droves to clean up the area.
"People are always concerned about it being the best it can be," McGee said, "and I think it shows."
Eventually, McBlain said, officials want to give residents even more green space to enjoy by extending the trail all the way from Darby Borough to Havertown.