A patch of grass around Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood is in line for some tender loving care. A new park with fruit trees, flowers and individual garden plots will run along the side of the historic Eastern State Penitentiary on land owned by the city.
If all goes as planned, Corinthian Gardens will bring new life to the stretch along the east side of the Penitentiary, on Corinthian Avenue running north from Fairmount Avenue.
But this isn’t simply a story about a strip of underused land evolving into a park.
“The community leaders in both neighborhoods — in Fairmount and in Francisville — they’re aware of the history,” said Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Greenlee, a lifelong Fairmount area resident.
He remembers the days when the area where the park is planned functioned as a sharp dividing line between the two neighborhoods,
Historically, Greenlee said, Fairmount had a lot of white, working-class residents. Growing up in Fairmount in the ’60s and ’70s, Greenlee said, it was “overwhelmingly Catholic, very Irish but ethnic generally — Polish, Italian, Ukranian mixed in there.”
Francisville, meanwhile, was the home of less affluent African American residents.
In addition to steering clear of old wounds, the creators of the new park had to make sure they kept even older traditions intact.
When volunteers who care for the prison surroundings built a playground at the back of the facility, they had to assure experts they were mindful of the historic significance, said Heidi Siegel, president of the board of Friends of Eastern State Penitentiary Park.
“We also had to have those similar meetings with the [city Historical] Commission for our garden plans primarily because the prison is historically certified and the commission needs to review any plans that may interfere with the original intent of the building’s look and purpose,” she said.
The groundbreaking for Corinthian Gardens will take place Tuesday with park completion expected by the spring.