Philly Love Note: Buying a house, investing in a community — falling In love with Dickinson Square Park

    Fifty. Five-zero. My husband and I looked at 50 houses before we found ours.

    In Graduate Hospital, our first stop, the newly renovated home of an older gay couple, with wall-to-wall bookcases in the living room but a too-high asking price that the sellers informed our agent was non-negotiable.

    In Fishtown, the sprawling rental whose tenants were so mad that their landlord was selling the property that they barricaded themselves in the master suite and wouldn’t let anyone up to the third floor to see it.

    In Conshohocken, new construction with baffling mold. In Port Fishington, the new construction with baffling neighbors. Back again in Graduate Hospital, the new construction with baffling bathtub placement — directly in front of a street-facing window.

    We saw a house in Germantown where we expected, at any moment, to be met by twins who wanted us to come play with them. We saw a house in Bella Vista with all-black bathroom fixtures. (Sorry, but I need to be able to tell when my toilet is clean.) We saw a house in Mount Airy occupied for so long by the same two-packs-a-day smoking couple that my lungs constricted the second I walked through the door. We saw a lot of pink-tiled bathrooms. A lot of laminate-countered kitchens. A lot of popcorn-covered ceilings. The occasional extremely personal mural.

    Finally, after several months and, yes, 50 houses, we saw our house in Pennsport. We fell in love with the red living room walls and the fireplace that interrupted their flow, and the big open kitchen with its exposed ceiling beams. We fell in love with the double sinks in the master bath, the hammered copper sink in the powder room, hell, the fact that there are seven sinks in the house. And five toilets — none of which is black.

    ‘The neighborhood comes out to play’

    More than the house, though, we fell in love with Dickinson Square Park, the acre of green that lay immediately across the street. That love affair has continued since the day we moved in. We’ve discovered our house maybe wasn’t all we’d dreamed it would be when we first saw it. As it turns out, we don’t actually need seven sinks and five toilets. But even though we don’t have children ourselves, we do, in a sense, need our park.

    Here, the neighborhood comes out to play. Kids teach each other to bike or skateboard on the pathways that meander throughout the park. On nicer days, the basketball court is guaranteed to be full. Even when the weather is not great, there are often a few brave hoopsters braving the elements … and one guy who practices sloppy Tai Chi in a corner of the blacktop, oblivious to the activity or weather around him. From March to November, the playground is most assuredly in use. Leashed dogs — there are no gated dog runs here—tug at their leads to greet one another, or to chase a squirrel up a tree.

    And those squirrels! Those fearless squirrels! I’ve watched one run under a bench and snatch up a dropped potato chip, grazing the lunching occupant’s leg with his tail with no fear of repercussions. In Dickinson Square Park, the squirrels run from the dogs, but only far enough to reach the safety of a tree — so they can taunt the dogs from on high.

    ‘Love your park’

    On Saturdays, neighbors convene to pick up litter, or weed the sidewalks and garden beds, or gossip. Usually, all of the above. On Sundays from June through October, the Friends of Dickinson Square Farmer’s Market attracts the Pennsport community for fresh produce and good conversation. Even the threat of Superstorm Sandy couldn’t scare away the dozens of neighborhood kids who arrived at the park’s Parsons building for our annual Halloween costume contest and activity fair, held three days before the holiday and one day before the storm. Standing in line for a deceptively good vegan scone or a coconut-milk mocha at Grindcore House, just a block away from the park, patrons — neighbors — recognize one another from the park and exchange a friendly nod or “How ya doin’?” even though they often don’t know each other’s names.

    Relationships that start during twice-a-year “Love Your Park” clean-up days radiate outward, to the sidewalks around the park, then to our stoops, then inside our homes. My next-door neighbors have our keys, and we theirs — plus an open invitation into their home any Friday that their Happy Hour flag is flying.

    To be fair, Dickinson Square Park isn’t a utopia. It is an urban park. Too many people think they can litter, or not pick up after their dogs, and leave it to park volunteers or our summer maintenance associate to clean up. Phone calls to the police about an altercation, or kids (and sometimes teenagers or adults) abusing playground equipment, or setting off fireworks late at night, are not uncommon. Last spring, while the park underwent renovations and the lights were kept shut off at night, there was at least one mugging. There’s graffiti. Some of the older kids will climb on the roof of the Parsons Building and throw things at passerby. There are spectacularly bad examples of parenting on display on a regular basis. The AstroTurf play surface in the middle of the park has proven harder to maintain than originally anticipated, with repairs complicated by the kids who are unable to resist running across it despite the caution tape put in place while the glue dries. Last month I went sprinting out of my house to stop three grade-school-age children from destroying one of the trees in the play area. (That particularly incident earned me the moniker “that crazy lady” amongst some of the park kids, according to my neighbor’s son.)

    But still … I walk through Dickinson Square Park with my dog and make small talk with the other dog-owners while our pups wrestle in the grass. When we run into each other somewhere away from the park — say, at The Industry up the street — we talk like old friends, even if I know them only as “Mabel’s mommy” or “Taz’s daddy.” I’m “Gracie’s mommy,” not Jill, to them.

    Giving back

    When we bought our Tasker Street rowhome in 2010, we didn’t just buy a house. We bought shares of a community that has been more valuable to me than I’d ever imagined it would be. I’ve been in Philadelphia for 11 years now, have lived at eight different addresses, and with the possible exception of my freshman year dorm, where everyone kept their doors propped open unless they were studying or sleeping, I’ve never had anything like what I’ve had the last three years. And it’s thanks to the park. The park is what brings everyone together. It has given me so much, that I decided, last year, that I wanted to give it something back, and so I ran for the Friends of Dickinson Square Park board and was selected as a member — which is why I felt it my duty, I guess, to run screaming at those kids when they were trying to take down the tree.

    I look out my window and see literally hundreds of kids enjoying the playground, or playing soccer, and I can’t help but smile. Sometimes, I want to jump on the swings with them. Then I’ll really be “that crazy lady.”

    I’d been living in Philadelphia for eight years when we closed on our house. I’d been living in Philadelphia eight years before I found a place I could call home.

    Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey grew up on the Mexican border and orders tacos frequently to keep her Spanish in check. She works as a strategic consultant handling media and analyst relations. She has an MFA in creative writing and loves live performance of just about every type (but often leaves angry at herself for quitting dance or piano lessons).

    This essay originally appeared in the blog Philly Love Notes.

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