Neighbors of Wissahickon Valley Park said they’ve had enough of the large crowds that descend on the popular Philadelphia city park, with many people arriving from out of state, blasting music, illegally swimming, and leaving behind mountains of trash.
The neighbors said visitors are violating longstanding rules of the park that the city has done little to enforce until recently.
So they are planning a rally at 1 p.m. Aug. 9 at Picnic Area 2 off Wises Mill Road to plead for more rangers or policing from the cash-strapped city. Anyone attending will have to wear a mask, observe social distancing, and possibly undergo temperature checks. The rally will be followed by a park cleanup.
The neighbors also formed a Facebook group, Bring Back Our Park Rangers, where they meet online or post pictures of trash and debris left behind, including food, portable grills, camping chairs, and water bottles.
The crowds, a growing problem over the last few years, have even gotten bigger as people seek to escape COVID-19 shutdown restrictions, they say.
One rally organizer, Nancy Crescenzo, 61, grew up near the park in the city’s Andorra neighborhood and later moved back to her parent’s house. Now, she will no longer bring her grandkids to play in the park because of the trash and noise. In addition, animals are feeding off food that’s been left behind.
“The whole thing in a nutshell for us is that there are rules and regulations that were established long ago to protect the park,” Crescenzo said. “People are not obeying those rules and regulations, and they need to be enforced.”
Crescenzo said she doesn’t believe the city has enough rangers to patrol the park.
The park includes just under 2,000 acres that include seven miles of Forbidden Drive and 45 miles of trails. The city has about 10,000 acres of parkland.
The Wissahickon in particular has become a magnet through social media images of locations such as Devil’s Pool, a popular spot for diving off rocks into Cresheim Creek — a tributary of the Wissahickon, which is listed as impaired by pathogens by the state and not suitable for swimming.
Among city park rules neighbors say are being violated are ones on littering, swimming or wading, lighting fires, amplified noise, alcohol, feeding or disturbing birds or wildlife, and having pets off leash. The city requires permits for picnics of 50 or more, but stopped granting them amid COVID-19 precautions.
Crescenzo said the city began last week checking people for possible rule violations, stopping those with swimsuits or inflatables, towels, or big coolers. Those efforts were limited to Valley Green Drive and Wises Mill Road, both of which offer access to parking lots. But there are many other entrances to the park, she noted.
“I understand the city is in a financial mess,” Crescenzo said. “But I cannot just sit back and say the city can’t help us and let this continue.”
Her group has been working with Joshua Cohen, chief of staff for Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr.
Cohen said there is now a working group to address the problems and includes representatives from Parks and Recreation, the park rangers, and police. He said signs are being installed in more prominent areas to let people know park rules. In addition, illegally parked cars are being ticketed or towed, and people entering the park are being told they can’t swim in the creek.
“We welcome you to the park,” Cohen said of visitors. “But you’ve got to park legally, follow the park rules and clean up after yourself.”
Maita Soukup, a spokesperson for Parks and Recreation, said the department is bolstering support for rangers. It has also added social distance ambassadors, who handed out over 500 masks and shared information about park rules to visitors last weekend.
Ruffian Tittmann, executive director of Friends of the Wissahickon, a nonprofit that works with the city on the park, said the park is seeing “sustained levels of peak use,” with 1,000 cars entering just on Valley Green Road on a weekday, and 1,200 on a weekend. About half as many enter on Wises Mill Road — some on buses from out of state.
“I would say what we’ve seen, and what I would say everyone working in parks across the country are seeing, is an incredible increase in use,” Tittmann said. “But COVID has made it challenging to operate safely for staff and volunteers.”
Her staff and volunteers perform a range of duties, such as maintaining trails, picking up trash, and keeping head counts of visitors.
“The Wissahickon is a park for everyone, but there’s just not parking for everyone,” Tittmann said. “The real challenge is how do we ... balance needs. People need to get outside. That’s been one of the big stories of COVID.”