Walking by a new playground somewhere else in the city always makes Erme Maula, a 45-year-old Filipino American living in South Philadelphia, a little jealous.
“Especially if it’s really cool and has that squishy bottom,” she said.
Maula mostly uses the playground near her house, the one at Mifflin Square Park that has remained unchanged since the 1990s. The city park, one of the few open green spaces in South Philadelphia, is located between Fifth and Sixth streets from Wolf to Ritner, at the heart of a neighborhood that hosts many ethnicities.
The playground feels rusty. A swing chair is broken, a ring of the jungle gym is missing, and parts of the flooring are gone, creating puddles on rainy days.
Maula, who is a member of Friends of Mifflin Square Park and other neighborhood organizations, said overall the playground is fine. It has two playing areas and a concrete sprayground in the middle, and kids like it, she said.
But neighbors have been working hard for four years to make it better.
“We have a lot of kids that use the park,” Maula said. “And I’d love to see a sprayground that ‘s a little safer than the one we have now, you know, where the kids have figured out that if you clog the drain, then it creates like a pool! And I’m always like, oh my god, take that T-shirt out, that’s not safe.”
The dream of a spruced-up Mifflin Square playground recently moved closer to coming true.
The park has received a $750,000 grant from the National Park Service to renovate the playground and its surroundings. The grant is tied to a matching $750,000 donation from the William Penn Foundation and the City of Philadelphia.
The project, to be completed by early 2022, will feature a new sprayground and two separate play areas — one for ages 2 to 5 and another for ages 5 to 12. Also included will be squishy safety surfacing and seating areas.
“I’m really excited,” said Raksmeymony “Rex” Yin, who directs children and youth development programs at the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia.
The Cambodian organization operates an after-school program and a pre-K program a couple of blocks from Mifflin Park. Yin said that teachers take students ages 3 to 13 to the park every time the weather allows it and that the kids like the playground. But he said it’s time for it to get a boost.
“Here’s a park that has not received that same amount of investment or attention or care than some in Center City,” Yin said. “I think this grant shines a light to the park itself, but also to a community that has been invisible, that has been ignored.”
Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell agreed. She said the city is matching the grant to support the new Americans and new Philadelphians using the park.
“This is really significant, this is a large amount of money, that is coming to a site that has been really under-resourced for many years,” she said. “There’s a lot of need at the site. Everything from how we manage stormwater at the site to the types of amenities there, from play spaces to athletic spaces — large investments like that — to just benches and trash cans and picnic tables.”
The city is hoping to get Mifflin Square Park on the next round of projects to be funded through Rebuild, Philly’s multimillion-dollar program to renovate dozens of recreation centers, parks and libraries.
This year, the Philadelphia Water Department will renovate each of the park’s corner entrances with new green areas that improve stormwater management.
First step in major renovations
It’s been a long time coming, as Mifflin Square neighbors see it.
The dream of a new park started in 2016, with a community-led plan that reimagined the way the 3.5 acres could better serve the roughly 14,000 people, speaking nearly 20 languages and dialects, that regularly use it.
As with many disinvested parks in the city, there was trash and dog poop everywhere. Neighbors didn’t feel safe, with gambling, drinking and criminal activity occurring in the square.
After several meetings and surveys Seamaac, a community organization founded 30 years ago by refugees, started to shape a neighborhood vision in coalition with eight other organizations and the planning firm Hector. The concept, called “Making Room for Everyone,” was completed in 2018 and will have a total cost of $5 million. Neighbors have been working with the city and plan to unveil a final design this spring.
Seamaac, which applied for the National Park Service grant in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, said the funds will allow the plan’s first phase, the playground, to be realized. That was a priority for the community.
“We’re very excited,” said Joel Arnold, community building and planning coordinator with Seamaac. “This funding will be one of the largest investments in the park in decades, and it’s funding that will help to implement the vision that the community came together for its park.”
Although there are still no physical changes to the park after four years of work, Arnold said the planning process has helped unite a community that was not connected before. These new relationships have brought more programming and activity to the park, which, in turn, have brought more people to use it.
“We know, anecdotally, that people feel better about the park,” Arnold said.
That work and stewardship were critical for getting the federal grant, he added.
Yin, of the Cambodian association, said the time taken for the planning has been crucial.
One of the biggest challenges for the coalition leading the effort has been to bring everyone to the table. In doing so, language has not been the only barrier.
“Change and transition can be challenging too,” Yin said. “When we’re talking about changing things, a lot of the community members say, `We like how the park is.’
“We’re speaking of a community that resettled in Philadelphia due to war, genocide and trauma,” Yin said. “A community that has experienced a tremendous amount of loss.”
Most of the Cambodian population living around the park moved to Philadelphia in the 1970s, after escaping the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Refugees and immigrants from other Southeast Asian countries, like Burma and Vietnam, and African and Latin American countries experienced similar trauma because of war or displacement. So now that they’re in the United States, Yin said, they hold onto spaces they’re created for themselves here, like the park.
“So we want to make clear, we’re not taking away anything from them,” he said.
Fast-paced development in the neighborhood is also a challenge.
The coalition leading the Mifflin Square Park plan doesn’t want a generic park but one that reflects the identities of the communities living around it. They want space for street vendors, a field for Cambodians to play a traditional version of volleyball, a garden to grow herbs used in their cuisines, and playground imagery that speaks to their culture.
“My fear is gentrification,” Maula said. “I’m always concerned that when you build the playground, who are you building it for? Are you building it for the new people moving in spending almost $500,000 for a house, or are you building it for the community who has been here for generations. It’s a hard question for all of us.”
Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation supports WHYY.