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Out of the ashes in Kensington, Phoenix Community Park’s future remains in limbo

It’s no secret that vacant land is a serious problem in Philadelphia, particularly in sections of North Philadelphia where years of neglect and abandonment have left physical scars to the area’s built environment.  There are numerous organizations, non-profits and city efforts that combat the issue; in Kensington, a group of grassroots organizers and residents have taken a particularly aggressive approach.

At H Street and Westmoreland, the green, lush Phoenix Community Park now sits on what was once considered a vacant lot.  But the land wasn’t always considered so -- a large, abandoned horse blanket factory once stood here. Five years ago, the facility turned to ash in a 7-alarm fire that also spread to 19 homes nearby. Thankfully, no one was killed. 

Shane Claiborne, a longtime neighborhood resident, was particularly affected by the blaze – his home was completely destroyed.  But instead of bemoaning his circumstances, he and other neighborhood activists decided to turn the tragedy into a neighborhood asset. 

Through his non-profit The Simple Way, a Christian community services group, the group raised money and acquired the land where the rowhouses once stood, turning the lots into community gardens.

But across the street where the factory burnt down, loose dirt whipped across the neighborhood like a scene out of Little House on the Prairie.    

Claiborne says the city’s laissez-faire attitude about remediating the eyesore encouraged residents to fix the problem themselves.  Through donated time and funds, local volunteers earned a year-to-year lease of the lot to turn it into a park.  In no time, they cleaned up the site, placed used painted tires around the perimeter to demarcate the space and renamed it Phoenix Community Park.

Through these efforts and thanks to The Daily News bringing light to the subject, the city took notice and started putting resources towards The Simple Way’s efforts, even though the lot was still technically publicly owned. 

At a time that marked the five-year anniversary of the factory fire, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society planted grass and trees at the site and installed a wooden fence around the perimeter.  The now iconic painted tires are still there, complete with a large and in charge mural on a nearby building wall. 

With this momentum behind them, and nearly 1,000 signatures to boot, Claiborne and others now want the space officially designated as a City park.  No more year-to-year lease.  Unfortunately this is easier said than done; since the site is not officially designated as a park, a very real threat remains that the lot could be sold off to private interests for development. 

“We are thrilled by the greening of this lot,” explains Claiborne, “but we also have a ways to go on making it a permanent park.  We need it officially recognized by Parks and Rec.” 

Doing so would protect the lot from development and formalize the City’s role in maintaining the space.  It would also allow the community to make improvements in more meaningful ways.  “A ‘park’ designation would allow us to build on new additions like playground equipment without the fear that it could all be squashed and developed with the year to year agreement,” says Claiborne.

Mayor Michael Nutter has recommended that the Parks and Recreation Department take over nearly 500 acres of land for park space.  Claiborne believes Phoenix Park should be part of this initiative and hopes the Mayor and others hear Kensington’s simple, to the point message on the matter. 

“We want it to be permanent, and have hundreds of neighbors who agree.”

Source: Shane Claiborne, Neighborhood Organizer, Founder of The Simple Way
WriterGreg Meckstroth
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