Roxborough woman transforms municipal lot into public garden

 A view of the garden. (Emily Brooks/for NewsWorks)

A view of the garden. (Emily Brooks/for NewsWorks)

When Helen Mangelsdorf and her husband, Roman Tybinko moved to their home on Lyceum Avenue 27 years ago, they found Roxborough to be a welcoming community of likeminded individuals.

“We were part of that initial wave of artists and musicians who moved to the area,” said Mangelsdorf about her and Tybinko, who are both landscape artists. “We loved being surrounded by people with similar interests, but we also loved that we were all neighborhood people; there were families who had been here for generations.” she said.

Returning to Roxborough

In the early 2000s, Mangelsdorf and Tybinko left their home in Roxborough to work as temporary caretakers on a large remnant of a Pennsylvania Land Grant in Delaware County. It was during their six years there that Mangelsdorf’s love for gardening began to take form. “There was access to more gardening than I could possibly do,” she laughed, “and I really enjoyed it.”

When the couple returned to the neighborhood in 2011, Mangelsdorf said she was met with a few disappointments: Longtime neighborhood friends were replaced by renters, beautiful homes had been knocked down and were now apartment complexes and beer cans lined the streets just a little more thickly than she remembered. Even at her own home Helen found herself frustrated by a yard too confining to garden in the way in which she had grown accustomed to.

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A lot once forgotten

So, she took to the streets. Starting at the Manayunk Wall, Mangelsdorf began a one-woman clean up campaign, clearing out the overgrown brush and picking up trash along the way. Then, she moved on to a small plot of land lining the entrance of the Municipal Lot on Manayunk Avenue and Connaroe Street, right at the top of the Wall. In fall of 2011, she planted her first rose bush, one she transplanted from a neighbor’s yard who had moved away.

Mangelsdorf continued her efforts, replanting from lots since abandoned, accepting donations from friends and buying some of her own. “I began thinking of the garden as a collection of remnants from days past,” she recalled. “I can’t even count the amount of variety in there now; whatever I could find, whatever people would give me is what I put in.”

Recognition around town

This summer, in its most successful year yet, the garden, which has grown into a collection of rose, sage, hibiscus, buddleia, holly, day lilies, sunflowers, ornamental grasses and even a raised vegetable bed, won second place in the Individual/Combined Category for the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s City Garden Contest.

Mangelsdorf noted that people she doesn’t know will often come up to talk to her because they recognize her from the garden.

“One day a young boy on a bike came riding in while I was working. He stopped and he looked at me and he said bluntly, ‘Did you do this?’ I told him, ‘Yes, I did.’ He kept looking for a while and said “Well it looks good.” Then he just rode off,” Helen laughed.

Despite the undeniable effort Mangelsdorf has dedicated on her own towards the garden’s transformation, she refuses to take all the credit, noting that a group called Friends of Fairview Park, for the park located directly behind the lot, has stepped in to help her by offering up resources like water tools and mulch.

“They are a great cast of characters and what they have done for Fairview Park specifically has really changed the dynamic of that area in a wonderful way,” she said.

As summer comes to an end and the colder weather moves in, Mangelsdorf’s time in the garden will grow less and less; but her passion for making the neighborhood a more beautiful and safe place will continue to run in full gear. She has already been in contact with the city to help make the lot more environmentally-friendly.

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