Volunteers, vision and change in Vernon Park

Volunteers from several organizations did clean up work in the bucolic and long troubled Vernon Park on Wednesday. The park has been cleaned before, but some see the recent efforts as something significantly different.

“We’re a coalition of different groups,” said Sue Finch as she worked mulch around some plants. “The Friends of Vernon Park and the rest are people called stakeholders, people in lots of different organizations.”

Among the park’s attractions is the historic Vernon House, home to Germantown’s John Wister, a member of the US Congress in the 1800s. The senior center, Center in the Park, is also housed in Vernon Park.

But surrounding those landmarks is another, less ideal history – of vagrancy, drug abuse and litter in the park. The clean ups, and a planned rain garden demonstration project are efforts to turn these problems around.

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Organizer Lesley Saliga, of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, said these are small, doable projects the community can gather around to build something bigger.


The rain garden will be about 1000 square feet in size, and will be positioned to capture some of the water running off the roof of Center in the Park. It will use native plants and incorporate some design elements from community input, while hopefully lessening the sometimes marshy feel at the park’s lower end.

But many involved feel the real significance of the effort that has grown out of the rain garden project take root in that word “stakeholder.”

TTF Watershed Partnership has worked with numerous organizations across the city, especially in Northwest Philadelphia, to help protect watersheds and reduce storm water runoff, a major threat to Philadelphia’s water supply. In Vernon Park the vision is a bit bigger.

“For TTF the idea is we don’t want to just come and do a rain garden,” said Julie Slavet, executive director for TTF.

So, in April, the Vernon Park stakeholders group formed from more than 20 community organizations, and it meets twice per month not just to keep the now  twice monthly clean ups on track, but also to find ways that collaboration can bring something more.

“We’re learning how to work together, all the different organizations are learning how to communicate. That’s what we’re doing at the stakeholders meetings,” Saliga said.

Between wheelbarrow trips Wednesday, Sean Roulan of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society said he has noticed.

Roulan works to help what he calls “community stewards” take care of the components of Philadelphia parks that seem to be beyond the reach of the Parks and Recreation Department. He called the stakeholder efforts at Vernon “a great model of community collaboration.”

Kathryn Ott Lovell, the executive director of the Fairmont Park Conservancy, attended the most recent stakeholders meeting for Vernon Park. The conservancy is currently working on a complete re-build of North Philadelphia’s 87-acre Hunting Park. No such plans have surfaced yet for Vernon Park.

Change is a marathon

Installing green space, especially strategically located ones like the planned rain garden in Vernon Park, helps slow the rush of storm water through the city, which in turn helps lessen the burden on Philadelphia’s undersized street drains and sewer system.

TTF and its major backer, the Philadelphia Water Department, hope projects like this repeated all over the city will one day stop overflows of the sewer system into the city’s drinking water supply.

One little rain garden may seem a drop in the bucket against a problem as big as Philadelphia has, but make no mistake, this is policy. The Water Department is under federal mandate to stop all sewer overflows by 2029 and this kind of thing is a big part of how PWD plans to do it.

At the moment overflows happen nearly every time it rains.

The piece-by-piece approach in Vernon Park is similar. Each organization involved donates what it can afford to the park, there is no budget for this work apart from the funding TTF has from Weavers Way Co-op and the Philadelphia Zoo for the rain garden.

For TTF and PHA those donations come as technical expertise and organizational help; for the Friends of Vernon Park, gardening know how; for the Parks and Recreation Department, tools and supplies; for community groups like the Chew/Belfield Neighbors Club the gift is labor.

Lifelong community member and Germantown Community Connection secretary Malik Boyd wasn’t dressed for gardening Wednesday but he did bring a large supply of water to keep the volunteers hydrated in the heat. He thinks even small scale clean up efforts in Vernon have made a difference over time.

“They’ve been part of the reason crime has been reduced,” he said.

Germantown resident YahNe Ndgo Baker was also optimistic. She used a special tool to pick up litter in the park – something she does regularly in her own neighborhood, she said.

“A clean community is something I’m very passionate about,” she said.

Baker said the effort at Vernon Park has been energizing because of all the connections coming out of it. But she is still at a loss for how to deal with the park’s well known maladies.

“It’s exciting to be working with other people in your community and everybody realizes that all these things are important,” she said as she worked. “I don’t know what would be the appropriate thing to do to make sure people are not drinking and doing drugs in Vernon Park.”

For now, Saliga and some of the other organizers hope that solution will begin to fall in place as clean ups continue and volunteer efforts ramp up for the fall rain garden installation.

“We’re just gonna keep going,” Saliga said.

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