At the foot of West Silver Street sits an unremarkable vacant lot. Like hundreds of others across the city, it’s overgrown, trash strewn, uninviting. That would change if local residents and community activists Lamont DeShields and Vincent Kennedy have their way. Then it would be transformed into something special: a community garden for all neighbors, especially children.
“When I say farm and growth and plants, I’m talking about substance, I’m talking about potential, I’m talking about taking kids off the streets,” says DeShields.
“This right here,” adds Kennedy, “is the first start to really trying to get our neighborhood back.”
Still, Kennedy knows it’ll take more than a community garden to spur positive change in his corner of North Philadelphia, which sits inside on the city’s busiest police districts. So along with others, he’s using a bit of grassroots rebranding.
Over the years, the area has become known simply as “North Philly.” But Kennedy and some neighbors say it’s a distinct part of the city. It’s why they’re reviving one of the city’s most mysterious neighborhood names: Swampoodle.
“It done fell off the map. They done considered everything Strawberry Mansion, which it’s not. This is Swampoodle. So why not give us what we need? Give us the righteousness that we need. And respect our name,” says Kennedy.
He’s not the only one who wants that.
Less than a mile away, near the corner of 28th and Allegheny Avenue, Community Action Group co-founder Denise Whittaker is standing beneath a flapping green and white banner. It features a white silhouette of a poodle and the name of what may be the city’s newest neighborhood: Swampoodle Heights.
“When you say Swampoodle to people they go ‘what?’ It wasn’t a name that sounded very attractive. We wanted to put something that would mentally give the connotation of something nice. Not a swamp or puddles of water,” says Whittaker.
With the help of some grant money, Whittaker’s civic group purchased about a dozen banners just like the one above her. They appear in an area that runs roughly from 30th and Hunting Park Avenue, to 24th and Allegheny Avenue, and over to Fox Street.
They went up roughly a year ago and still make her smile. To her, they help signal to residents – and others – that the area is a place where people like living, but want to make better.
“I’d like some kids to have the opportunity to know what it really is to live in a neighborhood where people know people and people respect people and respect where you live,” says Whittaker.
“We’ve lost it and we want to bring it back because it’s a good thing. It’s a good feeling.”
Whether anyone will use Swampoodle – Heights or otherwise – is anyone’s guess. The name doesn’t exactly roll off people’s tongues. Most have never even heard of it.
That’s understandable. Swampoodle hasn’t been used for generations and largely faded from memory. The neighborhood was once home to the old Connie Mack Stadium and Italian, then Irish immigrants. It later became a predominately African American neighborhood as a result of de-industrialization and the growth of suburbs such as Levittown in Bucks County.
DeShields, the community garden activist, has always called the neighborhood North Philly.
“What is Swampoodle? In my mind, it’s a swamp that may be coming to a puddle, which people don’t live in,” he says.
Ron Ross, who lived in the neighborhood for decades, says he’s heard it called the area all kinds of things, including East Falls, Allegheny West, or simply Allegheny.
“I don’t know what to say about,” says Ross. “I guess it’s going to take some getting used to. I don’t know how many folks would actually call this place Swampoodle, but it’s up there so I guess folks will.”
Whittaker isn’t kidding herself. She knows that banners on utility poles won’t change things overnight or maybe at all.
She still sees sense in trying and staying optimistic.
“We’re just hanging in until something happens,” says Whittaker. “There’s a thing: push, push until something happens. So that’s what we’re doing.”