This article originally appeared on Green Philly.
When Ryan Kellermeyer looks out on the junkyard spanning five blocks in Hunting Park, he doesn’t just see a pile of old cars and scrap metal. He sees a clear case of right versus wrong. And as a champion of what’s right, he intends to win that battle.
For years, Kellermeyer and his associates have been pushing for the company to cease operations and clear the debris off the land that, according to Kellermeyer, it doesn’t even own. Together, the activists makeup the Campo Verde Coalition (CVC). Their goal: turn the land, once it’s been reclaimed, into a public park for the neighborhood.
Kellermeyer says that the effort has stalled on momentum as CVC seeks more support and resources to get the job done. If the park comes to fruition, Kellermeyer says it won’t just eliminate a host of environmental problems in the neighborhood—it will also restore a sense of dignity to Hunting Park.
A rural transplant becomes an urban activist
Kellermeyer, an Indiana native, moved to the Philadelphia area in 2000 to study sociology at Eastern University. Settling in the city was always a dream of his.
“The very first time I pulled off the boulevard onto Ninth Street, I just felt something come alive in me that I’d always wanted in my life, which was people and energy and proximity and connection.”
– Ryan Kellermeyer
“When I was a kid, I would watch Sesame Street and I would see the kind of urban scenes, the idea of neighbors and density and conversations out the windows,” he said. “Growing up in rural Indiana, I was just so distant from all my friends.”
His freshman year, he was invited to church at Spirit & Truth Fellowship in Hunting Park, where he was baptized. From then on, he found himself visiting the neighborhood often for church and social events.
“The very first time I pulled off the boulevard onto Ninth Street, I just felt something come alive in me that I’d always wanted in my life, which was people and energy and proximity and connection,” he said.
Once he graduated, he decided to move to Hunting Park full time.
“As weird as it was, I’m this white kid from Indiana and I was attending a college that was mostly middle-class white people,” Kellermeyer said. “But I actually felt more connected to the church community in the neighborhood than I did to my college community.”
That’s because Kellermeyer came from an area in Indiana that, despite differences in race and culture, is just as economically distressed as Hunting Park. That sense of kinship served Kellermeyer well as he set out to engage with, unite and help improve his new community.
With the help of Catalina Hunter, who he met at Spirit & Truth Fellowship, he formed the Hunting Park Civic Association (HPCA). (You can read about Hunter in Part One of this story). The organization’s top priority: revitalizing the neighborhood’s park, which, at the time, was a neglected epicenter of crime. Members went door to door to ask residents why they avoided the park and what changes they wished to see.
“We had a phrase that I was using a lot back then, ‘As the park goes, so goes the neighborhood,’” Kellermeyer said.
Ultimately, HPCA was replaced by Hunting Park United (HPU), which oversaw the many improvements that helped slash crime and turn the park into an invaluable community resource.
Now, Kellermeyer works as the development director at The City School, a private Christian school with three campuses throughout the city. And in his spare time, he’s still active in the community. He serves as a deacon for Grace and Peace Community Fellowship, a church he helped found, and is vice president of the board of Timoteo Sports, a youth mentoring organization.
He also runs a monthly meeting called Hunting Park Community Action Network (HPCAN), which invites residents to air grievances and formulate solutions to the neighborhood’s problems. HPCAN embodies that quality Kellermeyer was seeking as a lonely kid in rural Indiana: connection.
“It came out of recognizing that if you want to be effective in the neighborhood, you’ve got to have a network of people who you can mobilize quickly,” he said.
A fight for junkyard justice plateaus
Kellermeyer formed HPCAN in 2015, in order to mobilize residents in a battle he’s still waging today, over a junkyard located on Sixth Street and run by a company called Clearwater Recycling. For decades, the site has been an eyesore, as well as a public health and environmental hazard.
“They were selling oil and gas illegally, and there was a lot of spillage that, whenever it rained, would drain off onto the sidewalk and it was just this oily, greasy mess,” Kellermeyer said. “If you’re trying to walk through there, you’re hoping not to get mugged and also hoping not to fall and slip.”
According to Kellermeyer, the site also frequently emits a foul odor and attracts mosquitoes, thanks to the abandoned tires that store standing water. That poses a problem for Casa del Carmen, a preschool located nearby.
Kellermeyer believes that Clearwater Recycling has been able to operate in Hunting Park for so long largely because the surrounding neighborhood experiences high rates of poverty.
“It’s no accident that this kind of thing happens in proximity to that kind of household income stats,” he said.
In 2008, Kellermeyer and the still-intact HPCA began addressing neighbors’ concerns about the junkyard. With the help of newly elected councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, HPCA pressured Clearwater Recycling into adding layers of stone and gravel to contain chemical spillage.
Then in 2015, the junkyard applied for zoning variances to expand its operations. Kellermeyer rallied community organizations to pitch in funds to hire Eustace Engineering, which conducted a survey of the land. According to the firm’s findings, the junkyard is operating too close to residences and is thus in violation of the zoning code. By parsing through government documents, Kellermeyer also discovered that the businesses is unlicensed and tax delinquent. With this evidence in hand, Kellermeyer and other impassioned residents—who would go on to form HPCAN—protested the variance request at zoning meetings and successfully ensured it was denied.
But shortly thereafter, Clearwater Recycling sued neighboring businesses it claimed were infringing on its land. Attorneys for those businesses uncovered a deed from 1857 that Kellermeyer says shows that Clearwater Recycling is operating on an expired railroad right of way and does not legally own the land. The legal battle was taken to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which sided with Payload and Kellermeyer’s argument.
Out of this conflict, the Campo Verde Coalition was born. The 15 community organizations have pledged to support any effort to remove the junkyard from the site and instead turn it into an official city park called Campo Verde, Spanish for “Campus Green.”
Now, Kellermeyer says, despite nearly 100 legal documents and a Supreme Court decision asserting the illegality of the junkyard, Clearwater Recycling is still operating on the land. He said CVC needs legal support in order to go toe-to-toe with Clearwater Recycling’s own lawyers and answer crucial questions.
“How do you get all these cars off the land? Who ends up owning the land? What do you do with it?” Kellermeyer said. “And can you get any of this done before they end up claiming some kind of squatters’ rights or something?”
And if CVC is able to evict Clearwater Recycling, it then needs to acquire funding in order to remediate the environmental damage caused by years of contamination, in order to make it a viable location for a park.
“For those of us that want to see something like that happen, it’s so complex that you pretty much have to make it a full-time job,” Kellermeyer said.
But he hasn’t lost hope. In recent months, Pennsylvania Senator Sharif Street has publicly expressed support for Campo Verde and advocated for the state to allocate $2.5 million in the capital budget toward the project. To Kellermeyer, it’s only a matter of time before more politicians and other powerful actors join the cause.
“What kind of redemptive narrative, to say this thing was a junkyard, part of a complex set of factors that created this environmental toxicity for our neighbors, and now it’s green?” Kellermeyer said. “It’s allowing people to find better health, to build community. That’s a good story. And it just feels like the right thing.”
Until then, the junkyard remains operational. In Kellermeyer’s view, it’s not only a nuisance but an insult to the community he fell in love with 20 years ago.
“It’s about our dignity. People cannot come from somewhere else and dump illegally in our neighborhood,” Kellermeyer said. “The message that is communicated by these actors and the various people who have supported them over the years is that we don’t matter. And that has significantly more damage than any kind of toxin.”
This is story is part of a Broke in Philly series about green changemakers in Hunting Park. Read our overview of the project here.