A History of Neighbors Park

A Brief History of Wissahickon Neighbors Park

Where a Church Once Stood

On the corner of Terrace and Hermit Streets used to be a large, L-shaped stone edifice. This was St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which had served the local community for years. In a sequence of events not unlike what still happens today in a changing neighborhood, the congregation dwindled in size and increased in age.

By the mid-1960’s, the cost of sustaining the church became too much and—with a tiff with their priest, to boot—it was decided to close the church all together in 1968. The church building and rectory (the first house to the West of the church on Terrace Street) were put up for sale. They both stood empty and boarded up for several of years. Ironically, the old rectory stands empty and in bad shape again today.

Seeing the building standing empty, a delegation of women from Agape House (the forerunner of our Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association) petitioned the Episcopal Diocese for permission to use the building as a community center. The neighbors were aware of the need for recreational facilities for the youth in their community.

It is commonly recalled that kids got into mischief regularly inside the closed building. They even set up something of a "club house" for themselves in the Vestry (the meeting hall at the "elbow A of the L-shape). More than prey to such minor vandalism, the vulnerable building is also remembered as a hangout for derelicts and "dope heads."

The would-be community center came to a quite different end. Soon after the holidays in 1971, someone set a fire inside the abandoned church "clubhouse" room. With its massive oak beams, the building burned for nearly a day and a half. It was a total loss.

Again, the church — now in charred ruins — stood abandoned.

By July of 1971, the Episcopal Diocese sold the property to the City for one dollar, with the understanding that it was to be used for a neighborhood playground. Some months before that, Agape House came forth with the idea of building a playground on the lot where the burned-out church stood. Tony Pastore, who was President of the group then, recalls the cooperation of City Councilman Schwartz in getting the City to agree to the idea. The Director of the City Department of Aging, and many other Agape House members were also cooperative.

The Department of Recreation was given the job of designing the new facility, which was smaller in scale than any other Park in the City. By sometime in 1973, plans had been finalized. The next year the site was bulldozed and construction began.  The playground was the first small, neighborhood playground in the City that the Department of Recreation created. It was touted as an "experimental playground" with an "innovative design."

Apparently, much of the Recreation Department’s innovation for this early-70’s project was in insuring community participation in the playground design. Members of Agape House meet with Department of Recreation planners (notably Mr. Zion and Mr. Fox) to discuss what options the civic association desired to include in the plans. A scale model of the proposed playground was constructed by the planners to provide a better way of conceptualizing the layout. The various components, such as the basketball court, building, swings, play equipment, etc., were moved around until the best possible arrangement was found.

Originally the Park was designed primarily for children aged fourteen and under. As the Park took on its own life, however, there were activities at the playground for all ages, young and old. As it turned out, the Park’s layout proved to be conducive to many, many kinds of activates: sports, theater, flea markets and on and on. In 1978, the Park won a Merit Award design prize from the Pennsylvania/Delaware Chapter of the Society of Landscape Architects.

Whereas the City initially proposed a much larger building on the site for indoor activities, the civic association opted for a small structure. The thinking was that with the problems the community was having with neighborhood vandalism, a smaller building would hopefully mean a smaller problem. That structure, which we call the Attendant’s Building, has become no small problem, however, for the neighbors.

A suggestion was made that some remnants of the old church be preserved in the new playground design. It was decided to leave the outline of a row of church windows visible on the wall of the basketball court. (See if you can spot them when you visit the Park next time.)

Included in the playground design were a set of sculptural steel gates. Records show that they were designed by an artist, Ronald Cohen, at a cost of $1,750.

The new playground was named Wissahickon Neighbors Park

Frank Rizzo, Mayor of the City of Philadelphia since 1972, and a plethora of dignitaries were at the Park’s dedication ceremony on August 6, 1976. The success of the people’s project was sullied by some back stage political shenanigans: reportedly the invitees to the ceremony were limited to Rizzo devotees. Consequently, some people who had worked to create the Park were excluded from the limelight.

At the time the playground was designed, the Agape House President was Tony Pastore. John Bernard was President at the time of the Park’s dedication. During the intervening years, Presidents George Evans, Laura Jones, Mary Fishel, Josie Cofone, Gary Gondos and Joe O’Keefe have played an ongoing role in the Park’s activities and renovations.

In its first years, there grew a robust range of activates at the Park. The first full-time Recreation Department activities organizer was Mary Fishel. She was on the scene to develop programs from 1976 until her retirement from the Department 1981. She was a member of Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association for many years. For several early years, there were three, yes, three full-time employees at the Park. It was common to have sixteen hours of planned activates at the Park a day. There were upwards of 300 children each day that used the Park’s facilities and participated in activities there.  Members of Agape House aided in all the activities from Arts and Crafts to bus tours, sports to bake sales, card games to bicycle trips.  While the salaries of the Activities Organizers were paid by the City, there were hardly any other City funds for the Park’s activities: maybe $100 a year, tops. The City provided some basketballs and nets, colored construction paper...not much more.  It’s here that the "neighbors" in Wissahickon Neighbors comes into play.

The Recreation Department has stood out for eons in the City’s history, on the one hand, for the extraordinary dedication to good works by most...and, on the other, for the laxity that is the hallmark of positions of political patronage for some. A great deal of praise is due those Department of Recreation workers, such as Mary Fishel, who tirelessly did their good jobs day after week after year. Praise, too, for the many, many neighbors who helped make the playground into something in which the community took pride in many ways many times.

A community of various neighbors

At that time, there were several predominant groups in the area—the Polish, the Irish and the mix who came to work at Connelly’s Containers. While each was a A tight" in it’s own way, they all also actually joined in a sense of community and cooperation. The playground turned out to be one of the best venues for that community spirit. Not that there were not family feuds and ethnic squabbles here, which characterizes any living community. But, all-in-all, a tremendous spirit of A something good going on" nourished lots of people. They did lots of good work for themselves, for their families and for their neighbors, who were not always just like themselves.

Over the years, the Park was the financial focus of Agape House, and later of the Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association. Some other activities on the group’s agenda were:

  • Starting a "crime watch" in the area.
  • Forming a Housing Committee to find affordable housing for persons pushed out of their homes by rising property taxes.
  • Starting a "food bank" at North Light Community Center.
  • Making clothing and food available to kids who were going without.
  • Providing meals and regular contact for elderly people.
  • Stopping "short dumping" (illegal trash dumping).
  • Participating in a big way — in both the Canal Day and Memorial Day parades.

Time Passes and Things Change

So me things never change. City budget cuts befell the Recreation Department’s program at the Park. Recreation organizers were in attendance less and less regularly in the past decade. Their presence or lack of presence—has been the crucial element in sustaining an ongoing community participation in the playground’s life.

More time passes. The playground held on tenuously in the 80’s. Bill Green and Wilson Goode were Mayors during that decade. Generally, our City Representatives were not attentive to keeping many of their promises of assistance.

Moreover, it was said that much of the community spirit was just not here anymore. At least not with the intensity that had once enlivened the playground and the neighborhood. It’s clear that the spirit of community the spirit of our community—didn't’t = t just "happen." It didn't’t spring forth in full bloom when the Park opened it gates. Rather, the sense of community was the result of much devotion by many people. They shaped it and made it work.

In 1987, Agape House registered in the Commonwealth as a non-profit corporation and changed its name to Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association.

Many youngsters from the neighborhood who returned from the war in Vietnam, some recall, just didn't’t seem to come back with the same spirit they had shown here as children. Too, the times were economically harder in Manayunk, and everywhere else in the City. Factories were closing, and people were leaving or falling further behind. Drug and alcohol use increased, as did violence in the homes. Not just in Manayunk, but all around us.

When the early 90’s came around, it was evident that major renovation of the aging facility was needed.

The rubber matting in the play equipment area was worn out and dangerous, and replacing it was expensive. Funds were not available from the Department of Recreation. At the behest of our Civic Association, Wade Cablevision gave a generous donation of $5,000 in 1992 to replace some of the playground matting. With some assistance from a Department landscape architect (Sam Le’Pera), the manufacturer of the rubber matting contributed twice as much matting for the money we had for the project. Thereby, about $10,000 worth of new matting was actually installed, which was enough to correct the worst problems with the play area surface.

A "Beauty Make-Over" is Needed

Michael DiBerardinis, the new Director of the Department of Recreation, was invited to a Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association meeting in 1992. We pointed to the Civic Association’s recent accomplishments in raising funds for repairs on the playground. We also pointed to the long list of major repairs that still needed to be done for the "20-Something" facility. We could not raise that kind of big money alone. Mr. DiBerardinis came through for us with the inclusion of our Park’s renovation work in the City’s 1995 Capital Improvements budget.

Major Renovations Are Made in 1994

The City contract for the renovation work on our Wissahickon Neighbors Park was grouped with work to be done simultaneously at three larger playgrounds/athletic fields in the area. Building Restoration, Inc. of Abington, PA, a firm that has done lots of such work for the City, got the 4-playground contract. The City (read "We" ) borrowed the funds in a 1995 Capital Improvements bond issue. That budget was authorized by the PICA Board, which oversees Philadelphia’s efforts at fiscal solvency. Those funds were restricted to improvements of existing facilities only: like, no new swimming pool or world class bocce court.

The Capital Improvements allocation for the recent renovations at Wissahickon Neighbors Park initially totaled $107,500. The job was divided into three component subcontracts:

  • $75,000 for new play equipment, safety matting and fixing some drainage problems.
  • $20,00 for a rubber roof for the Attendant’s Building to replace the leaky flat roof.
  • $12,500 for resurfacing basketball court and lighting improvements.

While the renovation work was underway, vandals broke down a light pole. Luckily, the additional funds to replace that and one other pole, totaling between $6,000 and $7,000, were available in the contingency fund of the 4-playground project.

The type of new play equipment chosen, in consultation with a committee of Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association, was for small children up to the age of five or seven years old. The play area is just not large enough to include a mix of equipment for a wider range of age groups. The play sets that were installed are well known for their durability and safety, and for their "fun factor" for toddlers.

The swings, which attract older preteens, were not replaced. This was because new safety guidelines for play equipment require 32 feet from front to back of a swing set. It was determined that there is no longer enough room in the play equipment area to accommodate them.

Since the basketball court is enclosed by fences and situated below street level, it is not possible to use heavy equipment to do a really top quality resurfacing job. Given these limitations, the manner of resurfacing was the best that could be done.

The roof of the Attendant’s Building was changed from tar paper to a rubber roof, which is a more durable type. Money was not available at the time to upgrade the lavatory facilities inside the structure.

As an aside, it’s been noted that since the building and its bathroom are seldom open, a back wall has become the site of urination for many Park’s visitors. No leaky roof now . . . just leaky youngsters.

Ed Rendell has been Mayor since 1994. Our current City Council Representative for the Fourth District, Michael Nutter, has been forthcoming in many instances with his assistance. He visited the Park in March to see its condition, and has been helpful in expediting the improvement process.

Recent History

As recently as two years ago, the Park was struggling to clean up its act and fly right again. After the expenditure in 1995 of over $120,000 on the physical needs of the playground, it seemed that the Department of Recreation would again let the Park deteriorate. The attendants and activity directors whom the Department sent to the Park had a "very poor work record," to put it mildly. Fifth District Police cautioned that any public playground left unattended will quickly become a haven for criminal activities. And it happened again to our Park after the renovations.

In response, a concerted effort was made by Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association to make clear to the Department what was developing again at the Park. To our chagrin, some of the officials seemed to be wearing blinders, and chose not to believe eye-witness descriptions of reemerging problems at the Park. We encouraged closer supervision of the salaried workers at the Park. Closer supervision did not come. An attendant on sick leave for months—summer months—was not replaced. We offered to help find someone locally who was qualified for the $5/hour job. Trash collection and maintenance work needed to be done more regularly, and we encouraged officials to insure that it was being done.

We made contacts with some of the older youths who used to frequent the Park, and got their ideas for making the Park less crime ridden. It was clear that without a visible presence at the Park of someone in authority, the problems would continue. Several neighbors chose to brave the taunts of the thugs ensconced at the Park, and regularly cleaned up broken glass and trash. Subsequently, on our recommendation, one of the neighbors was hired by the Department for custodial work at the Park during the summer.
On the list of neighbors who have made a significant contribution to the founding of Wissahickon Neighbors Park, and to the early success of the program, there is Jean Brown. She has also served steadfastly as our civic group’s Secretary and Treasurer for a number of years. Also long-standing and very stalwart helpers were Jean and Felix Czaplicki and Betty Hudecki. They, too, have contributed both to the Park and to our civic group. We are also reminded to note the good works at the Park by Jeffery Mack, known affectionately as "Mr. Mack." He loved helping out in many ways and was a regular there, before he died of cancer in his early 40’s. Mary Fishel, and other neighbors, fondly recall "Henry the Eighth," a white Toy Pug dog who was ever-present at the park for a dozen years. He loved to go down the children’s slide on the hot afternoons when the water was trickling down it. And there was the Great Dane, "Peanuts," too, who was as much a part of the fun as any of the 300 children who came to the Park each day for summertime activities in the late 70’s.

We are also reminded to note the good works at the Park by Jeffery Mack, known affectionately as "Mr. Mack." He loved helping in many ways and was a regular there, before he died of cancer in his early 40’s.

There’s always the chance we’re forgetting recognition of someone, so please let us know for future history updates. Sadly, too, we must recall the passing of Mary Fishel last year after a long illness.

 

Thanks for their participation in this brief history to Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association members (past and present) John Bernard, Jean Brown, Josie Cofone, Felix and Jean Czaplicki ,George Evans, Mary Fishel, Donald Higgins, Joe and Nina O’Keefe and Tony Pastore; to Department of Recreation’s Sam Le’Pera; and to David Evans of the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia.

Written by Forest Aegiano

President, Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association, 1998-2006

Last updated: May 1997