Gorgas Park’s Harvest Festival honors a neighborhood institution

Standing among hundreds of people at Gorgas Park, John Boyce looks around from under his large brimmed sun hat and predicts that this is the biggest Harvest Festival in the event’s 15-year history.

It could be because of the record breaking 27 vendors, or 100 volunteers, or the three moon bounce rides for kids. Maybe it was the build-it-yourself scarecrows, the pony drawn hayrides, or the petting zoo. But Boyce, the president of the Friends of Gorgas Park, knows that what made this weekend’s Harvest Festival the biggest yet is that the event doubled as the 75th birthday party for the North Light Community Center in Manayunk.

“They joined the Harvest Festival to celebrate. It’s expanded the celebration and really put the event over the top,” Boyce said. 

On the other side of the park, Karen Smith agrees. As the director of marketing and communications at North Light she describes how her organization teamed up with the Friends of Gorgas Park.

“We told them the two of us combined would make a bigger, better event, which is exactly what’s happening,” Smith said. 

As a pony slowly pulls a cart full of hay and children around the park, Smith hands out cupcakes and describes all of the things that North Light has done over its 75-year history to serve young and old Philadelphians.

“What’s unique about North Light”, says Karen Smith, “is no one’s turned away if they can’t pay.” The after-school program, summer camp, music lessons, and many more activities are all offered to Philadelphians whether or not they are able to pay the full asking price.

Many programs run by North Light exist to help the needy, such as the emergency food cupboard, which more and more families in the past two years have been getting assistance from.

Some of the food in the cupboard comes from canned food drives, but some of it is fresh produce grown and harvested by North Light teens from the Urban Sustainability Leadership Academy (USLA) and the Teens 4 Good program.

Guarding North Light’s produce stand was Laurence Caulk, a senior at Roxborough High School and a member of USLA, who pointed over his shoulder to the half-acre farm at Gorgas Park, which is just one of many plots of lands tended by the Philadelphia teens.

All of the squash they harvest from Gorgas Park goes straight into the food pantry.

Contributing to the “community fabric”

The president of East River Bank, Christopher McGill, surprised North Light staff with a birthday cake, and led the festival-goers in singing “happy birthday”.

McGill’s grandfather, Nicholas, was a founder of North Light back in 1936, and Christopher is now on the board of directors.

East River Bank supports all North Light events.

“Any event they do,” he says, “we help subsidize and underwrite the expense.”

Since the economic downturn, all nonprofit foundations have looked for help from new sources, says Karen Smith. Luckily, members of the community have stepped up since North Light recently lost all their funding from the charitable group, United Way.

As a “community bank” McGill believes that supporting North Light is “a community effort. They help so many Philadelphians in so many ways.”

“They do everything,” he concludes, after naming at least a dozen different North Light programs – from getting at risk youth off the street to delivering food to senior citizens stuck at home during Hurricane Irene.

The East River Bank contributes more than just money. Each year they interview several North Light students, who have been coached for job interviews, and pick one as a summer intern.

Some interns stay on for longer than just a summer. Right now he employs a senior from Roxborough High School that is only able to work one day a week.

At least half of the Gorgas Park annual operating budget comes from East River Bank contributions and the proceeds from today’s Harvest Festival, he says.

Boyce says that Christopher McGill is the third generation of McGill family bankers “who have sustained this community for over one hundred years.”

Support for local non-profits is part of East River Bank’s ongoing effort to “become part of the community fabric,” McGill explains, while handing out birthday cake to facepaint covered children.

Celebrating a neighborhood institution

Sylvia Myers, 87, moved to Roxborough in 1952. Her husband Francis, used to teach history lessons to children at North Light when it was still an all-boys club. As a lifetime member of the Roxborough Historical Society, she has one of the best memories in town.

“What can I say about North Light, except that it’s been a great place for children. It helps young people find their way,” Myers said.

In the 1960s, she sent her son there to take after-school drum lessons.

Over many years, she has seen how North Light “took [kids] off the street, gave them confidence in themselves, and gave them a perspective on what’s out there.”

Although her husband, Francis, has passed on, he is remembered by a doorway at North Light which was decorated by students with ceramic tiles.

A hub for local vendors

Standing along Ridge Avenue, lifelong Roxborough resident Sharon Hartkopf sells homemade jewelry. She doesn’t own her own store and therefore relies on craft fairs and street festivals like this to sell her artwork.

She travels all over the city, but this weekend she only had to walk a few blocks to set up her stand. “Usually I try to go to Christmas bazaars and flea markets, but today I just had to come here.”

Ali Kutner has owned Bohema on Ridge Avenue for three years and she has supported Gorgas Park since arriving in the neighborhood. For the past two years she has managed the Friends of Gorgas Park’s facebook page.

“They have such great concerts here. I love seeing old and young people together. It’s so peaceful,” she says from her booth.

The evolution of a park

Gorgas Park has changed many times since its founding in 1893. In the eighties the drug users that used to flock to the park earned it the nickname of “Pill Hill.”

Since then the park has changed dramatically, says John Boyce. The fact that boy scouts and girl scouts camp out in the park on Saturday night, making signs and keeping watch over all of the carnival attractions is “a testament to how the park has changed.

It’s the epitome of the resurgence of the park and the commitment of the community to the park. It also symbolizes building a healthy community in Roxborough.”

As Boyce surveys the hundreds of families in Gorgas Park, he declares the 15th annual Harvest Festival a huge success.

“This festival is the envy of every city and suburb,” he proudly declares. “This is as good as it gets in any community park.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.