In the very neighborhood where the Declaration of Independence was signed, another promising movement is springing up.
The Old City Special Services District, which collects funds from area businesses to maintain the neighborhood, wants to clean up the ratty lawn behind Christ Church at Second and Market Streets so that it can be used for community events, like movie nights.
Currently, the lawn is an unkempt space, surrounded by a stark iron fence and brick wall. The park is underutilized by people and over-used by dogs, as Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron reported.
But to move forward, the Old City District needs permission from the National Park Service (NPS), which owns the park. It's working diligently to come up with a plan that would merit NPS approval. That includes giving NPS a seat on its steering committee and directing architects to keep NPS rules in mind when reimagining the space. So far, NPS seems open to the idea of a partnership but fuzzy on concrete details.
Given the park's condition, a little civic love is needed to revitalize a space that feels like it's stuck in the early 1980s, when the neighborhood consisted of rundown bars and warehouses, and had fewer than 900 residents. In the decades since, Old City has evolved into a vibrant neighborhood with trendy restaurants, more than 5,200 residents, and crowds of visitors.
Motivated residents already have shown what they can do with a forgotten spot of green. They created a delightful pocket park next to the firehouse on Arch Street near Fourth. Every day they weed, prune, and skim scum off the surface of a small fountain. That city-owned park had been closed for the decade before residents took over in 2007. Since then, residents have removed a forbidding wall, repaired the fountain, and installed benches and tables. Now it's a charming respite in a busy city, exactly the kind of green space Old City needs.
Just west of Old City, the Center City Special Services District has shown, on a much grander scale, what a community can do to enhance its quality of life. Remember the old, dirty Dilworth Plaza? Today, it's got a fountain, tables and chairs, and an ice rink in the winter. This summer, it opened the Rail Park, transforming scruffy railroad tracks along Callowhill Street into an already-popular walkway.
Philadelphians love their parks and will take care of them, if given the opportunity. Most of Old City's green spaces are controlled by the National Park Service, which succeeds at caring for grand natural areas but is not so great at maintaining an urban habitat, says Paul Levy, head of the Center City District. That certainly seems to be true when you consider Independence Park, where lawns are weedy and unkempt, and public bathrooms remain closed at Fifth and Chestnut Streets.
A partnership between the neighborhood and NPS is a no-brainer. NPS should embrace Old City's enthusiasm and help this neighborhood realize the park's potential.