MLK Day volunteers clean up ‘the land that time forgot’ in Roxborough and Manayunk

Youth members of Moriah Baptist Church shuffled through dead leaves on Monday morning. Clearing away branches and pushing aside roots, they scavenged hundreds of broken bottle pieces from a small ridge in the Ottinger Tract: an isolated portion of Fairmount Park in Shawmont.

To Mimi Volker, a 16-year resident of the neighborhood, Shawmont itself feels pretty secluded. Reflecting on her historic Schuylkill riverfront community, Volker smiled. “It’s kind of the land that time forgot,” she said.

Volker was one of several locals who worked with students to restore habitats as part of a cold Martin Luther King, Jr. day of service. Ivy Ridge Green, a local landscaping collective, hosted the volunteers for a conservation project at three locations: the Ottinger Tract and the Schuylkill Heritage Bike Trail in Roxborough, and Germany Hill in Manayunk. At the sites, students – including those from St. Joe’s University and Penn Charter – planted trees, cut invasive vines, and picked up trash.

In the Shawmont section of Roxborough, vans and station wagons dropped off young adults at the intersection of Nixon Street and the Schuylkill Heritage Bike Trail. After directing drivers, Maggie Effinger told young workers to grab a soft pretzel and sign a volunteer waiver before they separated into smaller groups and headed to cleanup areas.

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Effinger heads the Roxborough, Manayunk, and Wissahickon chapter of Tree Tenders, a tree planting and care program funded by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. According to Effinger, Pennsylvania’s tree canopy has diminished by 70 percent over the past 20 years because of factors like disease and development.

In its three and a half years of operation, the Roxborough, Manayunk and Wissachickon branch of Tree Tenders has planted more than 400 trees. Effinger and site leader Tom Landsman helped students understand tree care as they instructed them to take lopper tools and reviewed the differences between branches and invasive vines.

Down the road at Ottinger Tract, Mimi Volker showed one volunteer how to cut invasive growths at their base, and how to identify “fuzzy” substances on vines as poison ivy.

Kay Sykora, Director of the Schuylkill Project, and other local residents worked alongside 11 young members of Moriah Baptist Church to plant saplings at either end of the park and to pick up trash.

Sykora said the cleanup began as a neighborhood initiative to preserve the land. Gathering bottle fragments, she acknowledged the large and detailed scope of the conservation project, which has been underway for over a year. Still, she is encouraged by the energy that so many people have for “greening and restoration work.” Next to her, the Moriah Baptist youth group, ranging in age from 15 to 27, laughed and talked as they filled heavy brown bags with flattened, faded beer cans, rags, and empty food containers.

Youth leader Eric Jean-Simon says that the Ottinger Tract cleanup is the first environmental service project completed by his group, which hopes to start volunteer work at least once a month.

“We want to do as much as we can,” said Jean-Simone, “to try to help the community as a whole.”

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