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City’s newest plot of public green space, Hawthorne Park, opens

A huge crowd stood happily baking in the sun today as city and state officials and community organizers praised the newest addition to the city’s park system, one that, they said, has been a long time coming.

Squarely positioned on three quarters of an acre at 12th and Catharine streets, the $2 million Hawthorne Park offers neighbors about 50 new trees in nine native species — including London planes, swamp white oaks, and, yes, Hawthorns — as well as 4,000 square feet of plant beds and an expansive 19,000 square-foot lawn.

Punctuated by only two sets of orange plastic chaise lounges, the lawn is the park’s most distinguishing feature. For such an urban setting — the park is lined by old rowhomes and the newer ones that replaced the MLK Towers — this field has a bit of the suburban about it. It’s disconcertingly green, but certainly pleasant.

How long it will stay that way is another story. Landscape architect Brad Thornton of LRSLAstudio, the local firm behind the design, says the hybrid turf was selected for its drought- and traffic-tolerant qualities, and noted that it (and the entire park, down to the containers placed on top of entry plinths) is irrigated.

Still, with trees placed only on the periphery, it will be interesting to see how the lawn fares in the summer and whether, in a neighborhood already prone to off-leash dogs issues, it will fall prey to the patchwork look that afflicts so many other smaller lawns in the city’s parks.

The park’s other design elements include a double herringbone pattern of boardwalk-style brick that lends the park’s generous pathways the appearance of decking, several granite seatwalls, a few tables and chairs, and numerous benches. Outside on a brand new sidewalk along 12th Street, six new stainless steel bicycle racks gleam in the sun.

To fulfill the One Percent for Art requirement, a stainless steel sculpture, Object for Expression, occupies pride of place at the center of the park. Intended by Philadelphia artist Warren Holzman to evoke a lectern or pulpit, the piece acknowledges the fact that Martin Luther King delivered a speech on the site in 1965.

In brief remarks before the ribbon-cutting, city officials duly noted the importance of parks, especially to neighborhoods in transition, such as the Hawthorne area, which is bounded by 11th and Broad streets between South Street and Washington Avenue. “How we look at our public space says a lot about our city,” observed Michael DiBerardinis, deputy mayor for environmental and community services.

Alluding to the park’s turbulent history — it was promised to neighbors after the Martin Luther King housing projects were imploded, but was jeopardized once replacement housing was erected — Mayor Michael Nutter praised the “great open space” as “certainly worth the fight.” The mayor then emphasized that the community would be just as responsible in caring for it as the city would.

Expanding on that idea, Patricia Bullard, president of the neighborhood association Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition, told the assemblage that a Friends group would be forthcoming.

As speakers like Mark Focht, first deputy for parks and facilties, and Drew Becher, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, addressed the crowd, toddlers picturesquely tumbled on the lawn, a long-haired dachshund gamboled by (on leash), and neighbors tried out the chaises. Nearby residents peered from their doorways and stoops.

One of them, Jared Ayers, said he hadn’t known anything about the promised park when he and his wife bought his house directly across from the site two years ago. It was only upon closing on the sale, that the previous owner mentioned it. “What a bonus,” he said today. “We’re thrilled,” he added, indicating two of his toddlers romping on the lawn.

Contact the reporter at jgreco@planphilly.com and follow her on Twitter @joanngreco

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