Hawthorne Park supporters hope jazz will draw people into the hard-won park

The peak of last week’s heat wave didn’t keep people out of Hawthorne Park for the second Jazz in Hawthorne Park event Thursday. 

This summer Friends of Hawthorne Park and Jazz Bridge are presenting a four-part series of free jazz concerts in Hawthorne Park. Thursday the Renaissance Quartet with Tyrone Brown serenaded a sweltering crowd as the sun set slowly over the houses surrounding Hawthorne Park. Last month The Mike Boone/John Swana Project kicked off the series, and next month Webb Thomas & Webb T’s Fleet will continue the groove. The Venissa Santi Quartet will roundout the series in September. 

These concerts are part of a larger effort by the Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition (HEC) and Friends of Hawthorne Park to draw people into Hawthorne Park – the park that HEC and its allies fought for more than a decade to build. After a lenghthy battle, Hawthorne Park finally opened last summer, and while the park has seen some programming, this is the park’s first concert series. 

When Tim Hitchens, a volunteer with HEC and Friends of Hawthorne Park, mentioned the jazz series to a neighbor, the neighbor asked who was playing. Hitchens didn’t name Mickey Roker, and the neighbor said, “You’re trying to do a jazz series in this park, and you’re not even talking to the greatest jazz player in Philadelphia?”

Little did Hitchens know, famed jazz player Mickey Roker, who has played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald, lives across the street from the park. Over the years Roker has spent a lot of time sitting on his stoop, watching the space where the park now stands morph. 

Roker says this is the third time he has seen the space change. 

“The homes were there when I came to Philly,” he said. “I came to Philly in 1942.”  

In the early ‘60s those houses were torn down so that the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) could build four high-rise housing towers. By the ‘80s, though, the towers were notoriously crime-ridden, and in 1999 they were torn down. 

As Roker remembers, he and his wife left for a cruise on Saturday. The buildings were blown up on Sunday. When he came home the buildings were a pile of rubble. That rubble remained as an empty lot while nearby houses were built, and construction workers parked their trucks and equipment in the lot. 

Before the towers came down, the space had been promised as a park, but plans and funding froze and politics came into play. In 1999 neighbors began working together to advocate for their rights and demonstrate their commitment to the park. A few years later they officially became the Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition (HEC), which among other things, fought to see Hawthorne Park built.

“We went through a lot to get this neighborhood like it is,” said Pat Bullard, former HEC president. “We had a lot of problems.”

Battling PHA and developers who wanted to make changes the community didn’t agree with was practically a full time job, Bullard said. HEC gained support from city and state officials, departments and organizations, but the struggle to see Hawthorne Park come to fruition continued until June 5, 2012, when the ceremonial ribbon was cut. 

Since then, HEC and the Friends of Hawthorne Park have been trying to establish consistent programming to draw people into the park and keep crime out. They’ve held a couple movie nights and other small events, but this jazz series is the first of its kind for the park. 

Jazz in Hawthorne Park
Jazz in Hawthorne Park

“We would like to have a really nice program for the park,” Bullard said. “We’d like to bring people in and always have something for the kids.”

The jazz series will continue through September with a concert on August 15 (Webb Thomas & Webb T’s Fleet) and one on September 19 (The Venissa Santi Quartet). Both concerts are free and start at 7 p.m. 

The Friends of Hawthorne Park also has four movie nights planned:

  • Lady and the Tramp, Friday, July 26 – with special guest PAWS and a pet parade
  • Sister Act 2, Tuesday, August 6 – with special guest the Philadelphia Police Department 3rd District and a safety demonstration
  • Rocky, Friday, Friday, August 23 – with special guest Fearless Athletics 
  • The Karate Kid, Friday, September 27 – with Wushu Kung Fu by Hasan Rucker

Each movie begins at dark, but pre-movie activities begin at 7:30 p.m. 

“I’m just happy to have things happening and started,” Hitchens said. “…My hope is we’ll get more people in and active once they see the movies [and events].”

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