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P'unk'd: A Model of Modern Civic Engagement in Passyunk Square

A neighborhood is not an inevitability, and a conglomeration of buildings and people does not guarantee community. It takes work. In South Philadelphia, the Passyunk Square Civic Association (PSCA) has become a powerful instrument for change by embracing a decidedly progressive model of community organizing: inclusiveness, transparency, web-savviness and a shared vision of urban vitality.

When Geoff DiMasi, an original founder and former president of PSCA, first bought a pair of buildings at the corner of E. Passyunk Ave. and Federal St., the area south of Washington was largely without an identity. As a designer and someone with a nascent interest in civic life, this bothered him. With the help of neighbor Sue Montella, he brainstormed a brand for this area bound by Broad St. to the west, 6th St. to the East, Tasker St. to the South, Washington Ave. to the North. Through his research, he discovered that Columbus Square used to be called Passyunk Square, and that the area now occupied by the police station and the Acme was once called "Passyunk Square" by the city. It was also a moniker that would call attention to one of the neighborhood's prime assets--vibrant E. Passyunk Ave.

"Many people now take that name for granted," says DiMasi. "But, at the time, nobody was using that term, and there was no name for the neighborhood. I remember in the South Philly Review, someone was pumping gas, and asked a question about gas prices, and they identified themselves as being from 'Passyunk Square.' I was like, 'Yeah!' Because we were making it up."

Greening a Neighborhood

Once the Passyunk Square Civic Association was up and running, they wasted no time in wielding their influence. "We didn't try to do a 10-year plan or anything," says DiMasi. "I think that's a big mistake. We just wanted to get on the ground and start doing things. We wanted to do greening. In 1990, South Philly had 2.3 percent tree coverage. A healthy environment should have about 35 percent. We did one of the first large-scale all-volunteer tree plantings in the city. Forty-three trees were planted in one day around Capitolo Park. In the pouring rain. Now we regularly do 100 trees in a day." In addition, PSCA successfully lobbied to have a community garden installed in Capitolo.

"Trees, in my mind, are a symbol of actually believing in the future of a neighborhood," explains DiMasi, recalling a feeling of pessimism that used to pervade the area. When he and his wife first moved in ten years ago, they put plastic flower pots in front of the offices for P'unk Avenue, their web design business. People warned them that they would get stolen. There was not a single window box on the block. People did steal the plants, but they'd just put them back. After about eight years, someone actually took one of the planters.

"By that time, you looked around and there were planters everywhere and it didn't matter," enthuses DiMasi. "That's actually one of the reasons (PSCA) first did a plant sale--we wanted to encourage people to plant flowers. And that's now an annual tradition in the neighborhood. It's a symbol of life, and people caring."

The Power of Zoning

So, what else can a civic association do? Christine Knapp, the group’s current president, explained it this way: "We always say that our role is to connect neighbors to each other and to resources, so that people who are trying to address problems aren't out there on their own. Our little mission statement is to enhance the quality of life in the neighborhood, preserve the neighborhood's historic character and encourage an inclusive community."

In the past, South Philadelphia's community action revolved around the Dioceses' parishes. As the neighborhood changed and the parishes receded in influence, a vacuum developed. The civic association has stepped in, and they have several tools at their disposal. One of the most important is zoning.  

In its early days--back when DiMasi was originally developing the name and a Town Watch was being launched--the organization coalesced around mitigating a nuisance bar. The easiest way for the neighbors to have a say in the zoning application was to become official. These days, the Civic serves as an invaluable mediator between neighbors and developers.

"That can be as simple as asking for more trees to be planted, or asking for lighting, or asking for parking to be away from the front of the building," says Knapp. "Or much bigger things--in terms of the size and the scale of projects that disrupt our character. I don't know exactly what would happen if we weren't here and someone wanted to come in and build some monstrosity."

Often it is those sorts of simple things that increase the quality of life in an area: PSCA also pays for weekly street cleaning service in the neighborhood. Last year it cost them $16,000--more than half their annual budget.

School Project

Public education is another major issue for PSCA. It all started with about 10 mothers and mothers-to-be meeting at Capitolo Park to discuss their concerns with the neighborhood's Andrew Jackson School, a K-8 institution that had developed a bad reputation. "We all loved the neighborhood," says education committee chair Christina Grimes. "What could we do so that we could all stay and make the school the community anchor it could be?"

As the group started investigating ways to improve the school, they were surprised to find out that it really wasn't all that dire. "I think a lot of it was marketing, for lack of a better word," explains Grimes. She tells a story about her husband chatting with a neighborhood lifer at the corner bar: As a child, his parents had warned him that if he didn't behave and do well in Catholic school, they would send him to Jackson. "It had such a perception of being a bad place, and it wasn't a bad school--even when we started," she adds. "Particularly, the Latino community has become very active in the school."

The group got in contact with a woman named Jacqueline Edelburg, co-author of the book How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood Renaissance, based on her work as a community activist in Chicago. Following her model, they developed a "resource board" on the web. The school's principal, Lisa Ciaranca-Kaplan, lets them know what she needs, and they do their best to make it happen.

"There are so many people with so many resources, whether it be personal or monetary," explains Grimes. "Like people who have connections with someone who owns a restaurant, and they could donate food for an event. Or whether it's time--people who can go during the day and be reading buddies at the school."

The education committee was also instrumental in the reopening of the school's shuttered library and in initiating a mural project with COSACOSA. As the neighborhood changes, their efforts become even more vital. When Grimes and her husband first moved in seven years ago, there was only one school-aged child on their block of 13th St. Now their second daughter is number 13.

Grimes makes sure to stress that the bulk of the credit for improvements at Jackson goes to dedicated parents and teachers--her group simply adds on the extras and helps build positive momentum within the community. "People have started to say, 'Oh, maybe I will go in and look,'" says Grimes. "You go in, and the building just feels like a school. It's got all the old wood and marble steps. It feels like everything that you associate with a good public school."

Passyunk Avenue Arrives

The Civic's victories cannot be divorced from the tremendous changes in the neighborhood--they are symbiotic successes. A large immigrant population has made this area of South Philadelphia one of the city's most diverse (Where else can you get a bowl of pho and a plate of tacos al pastor on the same block?) and an influx of young people and Center City refugees looking for affordable housing has established a thriving commercial district centered around bustling E. Passyunk Ave.

Back when they first started with PSCA, DiMasi and his wife did some brainstorming and came up a list of hopes for Passyunk Ave.: hardware store, plant store, cafes, pubs, a sushi restaurant. "We said, 'Passyunk Avenue should be a place of everyday needs and simple pleasures,'" recalls DiMasi. "It should be a place that people go to everyday, for meals and little things they need." They shared their thoughts on internet and it became part of the dialogue. Most of the items on that list can now be checked off.

"I remember saying it would take 10 years, and it took ten years," says DiMasi. "Obviously, a civic association can't do everything, but I feel like we accelerated it. I think of us as the first of the modern civic associations. Many civic association leaders in the city will be in their position for 30 or 40 years. We are always focusing on bringing up new leadership, involving new members of the community. One of the reasons I'm really proud not to be on the board anymore, and is that they're still doing amazing work. It's ongoing. That's a real testament to the strength of the organization. I think it's part of the new way that people want to be involved."

- On Friday, Sept. 9, the Passyunk Square Civic Association will host its first annual P’unk Square Community Art Show and Auction. 6-9 p.m. at 822 Ellsworth Street, $6 in advance; $12 at the door. All proceeds will benefit the Passyunk Square Civic Association.

- Anyone who wishes to donate supplies to Andrew Jackson School can contact Christina Grimes or PSCA. Discounts on bulk orders are available from the local Staples (1300 S. Columbus Blvd.); donations are tax deductible.

- On Sept. 16, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will visit Andrew Jackson School. The visit is made possible by Advancing Civics Education (ACE) and Verizon.

LEE STABERT is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. Send feedback here.


Christine Knapp and Geoff DiMasi



View from Capitolo Park - Passyunk Square

The community garden at Capitolo Park - 10th and Federal

Tasker Street Fountain at Passyunk and Tasker

Mural by Isaiah Zagar at 9th and Federal

All photographs unless noted by MICHAEL PERSICO
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