The Fairmount Park Conservancy works collaboratively with outstanding community members through projects in Philadelphia’s network of parks. Together, we are maintaining and transforming neighborhood green spaces into community assets.
The summer of 2011 marked the beginning of Mark Berman’s project to save an abandoned lot. Berman, 44, and his wife Jennifer had a four year-old daughter and were concerned about blight and safety in their Pennsport neighborhood. Berman teamed up with neighbor Jessica Calter and eventually many others to save two vacant lots from a developer and turn them into what is now the Manton Street Park & Garden.
Berman gave up his lunch break one afternoon to dish with the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s SJ Punderson on the details of his journey into community activism. This is the story of an ordinary citizen doing extraordinary things.
SJP: How did you get involved in the Manton Street project?
MB: In June of 2011, I saw my neighbor Jessica cleaning up a vacant lot at 4th and Manton by herself. I introduced myself and we started talking. We circulated some flyers to get the neighbors involved and had our first meeting shortly after, which had a really good turnout. I was surprised.
SJP: What did the lot look like before the restoration?
MB: It was an old, neglected lot. It had trash, weeds, glass, a couple of hypodermic needles. When I first moved there, there were people hanging out on the corner at all hours of the night, cars pulling up, stranger walking by, you could hear them at night. That’s not there anymore. There’s still some suspicious activity, but it’s nothing like what it was. We talked about what it could be. First, we had the huge task of cleaning it up. We met every single week, sometimes in the rain, to clean up trash. We were out there trimming the ivy, which was about six inches thick. It took a long time. We contacted Councilman DiCiccio’s office in August and scheduled an appointment. He was supposed to come out but he never showed up.
SJP: What happened next?
MB: We saw some city inspectors who came to look at the park. People got nervous. Why are these city officials here? I thought, maybe they’re from Parks & Rec, helping us out. We had a standing partnership with Parks & Rec during a Love Your Park event when it was a trash strewn lot. It turns out the lots were put into an ordinance to be sold, along with other public properties. It took a massive effort to find out who owned these lots and what the intention with the lots was. I had gotten a loose, verbal confirmation from DiCiccio’s office in June to go ahead and clean up the lot. The lot had been abandoned since about 2004. We tried to meet with DiCiccio.
SJP: So what did you do?
MB: We had never seen any signs the lots were up for auction. We created a big campaign to save them. Councilman Squilla was incoming and he helped us immensely. We spoke to the Daily News and got a huge article. The developer called me the next day and told me they wanted to start off in the community on the right foot. They gave us half of what used to be the park, which worked out to be a blessing because it’s a very manageable size (24 feet wide by 45 feet deep).
SJP:How did you get the deal hammered out?
MB: Parks & Rec, Public Property and the developer agreed to a deal. The developer agreed to give us those lots and nullify the sale, and Parks & Rec would take the lots into their inventory. A few weeks later, we had an agreement that two lots were property of Parks & Rec.
SJP: What does the park look like now?
MB: It’s contemporary and open. A large, timber bench and boulders provide seating; kids like to jump and play on them. There are dogwood and honey locust trees that will eventually provide shade in the summer. Some of the things we plated include ferns, sea holly, purple sage, hydrangeas, hosta, smoke bush, catmint, pony tails and echinacea.
SJP: What was your personal interest in this space?
MB: I had been there since 1999 and the climate was that the public schools in Philadelphia were failing. I had lived with the mess on the corner for long enough. I wanted to do my part to hold the community together. I’d seen other neighborhoods turn around because of a park. I was pretty obsessive but if we hadn’t had such a strong neighbor turnout I don’t think it would have ever happened.
SJP: What do you do for a living?
MB: I’m the Creative Services Manager at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
SJP: How has being a parent affected your role in this project?
MB: Jennifer and I have a daughter, Anna, who is now eight. I was concerned about school system at the time. I thought if we could turn this neighborhood around, we’d get people to stay. When people stay, they demand things, good things like services and schools. That’s why I’m involved. I know families need these parks. We don’t have backyards.
SJP: How has having the park and garden changed the dynamics of your neighborhood?
MB: Kids meet at the park. We go out to weed and water the garden, and there’s another family out there. All of a sudden, there’s a feeling of, we’re not alone here. People see these positive developments and want to be a part of it.
SJP: Who helped with funding?
MB: We were pretty tenacious about saving this lot so we made ourselves known. We applied for the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s ‘Grow Your Neighborhood’ grant. When we got the grant, I got letters of support from local businesses, friends groups, the councilman and the developer. It’s crucial to get everyone on board. People seemed to get it and want to help. PHS had money provided by PHDC for greening projects in low income neighborhoods and that’s how we got the additional funds. PHS came up with the final design for the park. The community garden model also provides annual fees ($45) for each of the 10 garden beds, so that gives us $450 a year just from the gardeners. We also rely on the Parks & Rec activity grant. We host an annual block party, and last year’s was a major success.
SJP: Have you been a part of community projects before?
MB: I had been involved with the Friends of Jefferson Square Park, which is just a block away. With that group, I’ve seen more young families in the neighborhood become leaders. I feel like they’re inspired by these kinds of developments (Manton Street) in their neighborhood.
SJP: Any tips for people who would like to pull off their own community project in Philly?
MB: Listen to everyone’s input and don’t reinvent the wheel. Get a good group of people together with a diverse number of talents and resources.
SJP: What was the biggest obstacle to this project?
MB: Saving the park. No one bothered to inform us that the lot was slated to be sold to a developer. We were able to save the lot in the nick of time through an insane amount of research. There’s a lack of transparency between how neighborhoods are being developed and the residents who live there.
SJP: What’s an ideal day like for you in the Philadelphia park system?
MB: To drive out to Fairmount Park in the summertime, find a spot with my family that we’ve never been to and picnic there. The Washington Avenue Green is also a dream come true. It’s beautiful in any season and we only have to walk four blocks to be on this amazingly landscaped pier; the only downside is we have to look at New Jersey.