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Restoring parks can help restore peace on the street

By Patricia Vance A killing a day - if not more. The crisis here builds with no solution in sight. But there is one step that we can take: We can spend more time, more attention and more money on our parks.

By Patricia Vance

A killing a day - if not more. The crisis here builds with no solution in sight. But there is one step that we can take: We can spend more time, more attention and more money on our parks.

Some may wonder why we'd waste precious resources on a "luxury" in this time of catastrophe. I submit that our neglect of one of our greatest treasures, our public park system, is one of the many causes for our current condition.

As an example, I offer the history of Cloverly Park, a tiny sliver of Fairmount Park occupying half a city block a short walk from my house in Germantown. Twenty-five years ago, the park was a blighted, dangerous eyesore. Drug deals were common, and scattered trash included broken glass, drug paraphernalia, and even abandoned cars sinking in the mud. Poison ivy choked the broken-down, chain-link fences that lined the park. The bus stop at the corner was unsafe; most people walked out of their way to another stop.

When a series of rapes occurred inside the park, nearby homeowner Hap Haven had finally had enough. He and a group of neighbors towed the cars out of the interior, filled the ruts from the tires, and ripped out the poison ivy.

People told them they were crazy. The druggies, the muggers and the rapists would be back, they said. But the doomsayers were wrong. What followed was a renaissance - not just of the park, but also of the entire block on which it stood.

People began to use the bus stop they once had scurried past. They lingered on the benches to chat or have lunch on sunny days. Then people began walking their dogs through the park.

In the 1990s, two local moms decided that our neighborhood needed a playground. Cecilia McColgan and Julie O'Connell worked with the Fairmount Park Commission to gather funds and design a charming and inviting play space that included swings, a sliding board in the shape of dragon, and a colorful, ingenious climbing apparatus. Then-Mayor Ed Rendell attended the grand rededication the following summer.

The same doubters announced that the equipment would be broken and scrawled with graffiti in no time. Again, the pessimists were wrong. Not only was the equipment not abused, it was enjoyed! Kids arrived with their parents in tow. The play area bubbled with children, as their watchful moms and dads sat on the benches.

More than 10 years later, it is still active - and it is still in good condition.

Local gardeners got involved next and planted annuals, perennials and trees obtained from Fairmount Park, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and their own gardens. The Friends of Cloverly obtained grants from local groups such as Weaver's Way Co-op, the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, and Fairmount Park's Grow the Neighborhood program.

Now, the drugs are gone, the muggings have stopped, and children play in the park in safety. Families have picnics, play catch, and walk amid the trees and flower beds. The park is as safe as our own backyards.

Cloverly's reformation goes far beyond the confines of the park. Increased use decreased crime - not just in the park, but in the streets surrounding it.

Twenty years ago, Realtors avoided the park. Now they proudly walk prospective buyers through, pausing to draw attention to the 100-year-old trees that grace the interior.

Friends of Cloverly Park hold two cleanup days each year and ask neighbors to lend a hand keeping the park in pristine condition. More than a dozen people come out for each session, and the result is that our little gem of a park continues to sparkle.

Affection for the park has spilled over to affection for the neighborhood. Cloverly has helped my neighbors to feel part of a community. Those neighbors leave feeling proud of themselves and their neighborhood. We know our neighbors and keep an eye out for each other. We feel safer - we are safer - in our homes now.

Pride and respect for one another and our community are essential if we are to overcome the current cycle of violence facing our city. And it can begin so easily in our neighborhood parks.

Cloverly is not alone among the many gems in Philadelphia's park system. Open spaces, hiking trails, formal gardens, and hundreds of works of art all are available for free to everyone who wants to partake.

Imagine my surprise and dismay, then, to discover that Philadelphia ranks almost last among the largest U.S. cities in amount of park funding per acre and per capita. The Philadelphia Park Alliance states that Philadelphia spends less than half the average for other large cities. The lack of funding and employees has allowed many of our great treasures to become trash-covered breeding grounds for crime.

How can we expect our children to grow up with a sense of respect when we present them with such miserable places to gather and play?

Our parks belong to us as much as our own yards and gardens do. They reflect our values as much as our homes do. We must give our children and our neighbors reason to respect us and themselves. Restoring our parks can be our first step toward restoring peace on our streets.