Diane Kunze spent 11 years looking out her front door over at the park across the street and thought somebody should really do something about that mess. Overington Park, located at the corner of Leiper and Orthodox Streets in Frankford, didn’t seem to be maintained by the city and it’s most committed users were drug dealers, prostitutes, vagrants and school students playing hooky. People were bringing mattresses into it. It was not an inviting place to be and therefore, the only people using the park were the ones up to mischief. It had a spiraling effect that as fewer people used the park, more and more mischief took place in it.
“It’s such a Philadelphia thing to do. Look out your front door and say ‘The city should really do something about that.” Kunze says. But that was 10 years ago and the park’s turn around has been hard fought, but a success. There is a presence there now. Her group, the Friends of Overington Park, make every effort to let people know, who are looking for a place to hide, that this park is not going to be it.
They keep the ground free of debris with weekly cleaning days, and make it a mission to keep the place inviting to neighboring schools, so they’ll bring the kids over. For years, the park has been host to carolling at Christmas time, participated in every city service day, held multiple movie nights and annual Fall Festivals.
When I asked Kunze how she could tell if her park was doing well, she responds “women and kids”. That’s the metric she uses to determine if The Friends’ efforts to make the park a safe and friendly place for the neighborhood to use is working. If women and kids won’t use the park, then no matter how pretty it looks, it’s a failure. When the group first started working in the park, local schools weren’t bringing their kids in. Their parents were forbidding it. It took getting the school administrators to come back into the park to see the changes that were made to get them to change their minds. “They knew the well deserved reputation of the park” said Kunze, “but that’s all changed now”.
“Everyone thinks we were an overnight success, but it took 9 years of constant work” according to Mary Ellen Post, a Bridesburg resident, flower enthusiast and member of the Friends. Success has hinged on their ability to bootstrap all phases of park maintenance. When the city balked at paying $1000 dollars for each trash can, they went around to local car washes and got them to donate big blue bins to use. Without a water source in the park, they bring out a wheelbarrow with a water bladder to water plants and trees. Knowing that the procedure for Parks and Recreations approving flower beds is slow and cumbersome, the group prefers a more ‘guerilla style’.
The Friends are almost militant in their protection of the park and follow the broken window theory, that one broken window leads to others. So stop it when it starts. That’s why they start calling city agencies and complaining when they see damaged fences, drug dealers and prostitutes and graffiti. And they keep up the pressure until it’s resolved.
Dealing with the city can be an exercise in patience. The park has recently been allowed a seasonal maintenance worker, a city paid worker that would help clean up the park for 20 hours a week. “They won’t just give you a worker, you have to show them you’re working on something.” But that’s been after asking for one for years. And that season maintenance worker duties were already being handled by park volunteers, albeit for free. The city’s assistance just let them concentrate on other priorities. And they only found out they were getting their new tool shed at the last minute, also a three year endeavor. And those big blue bins for trash cans? After they set them all up, the city decided to give them real trash cans. Then the matter at hand was to actually get them to empty them, does the city empty it’s trash cans? There’s no log book at the park. The best way to know if the city is emptying the trash is the tire tracks on the flower beds.
The park group begs for everything and makes it a point to be grateful for anything they get. Kunze says she gets tired from all the phone calls and emails she sends. “But it’s worth it because I live here”. All of that communication keeps her in the loop for possible grants and to let city officials know what’s going on in the park. She counts numbers at all of their events and reports back to city officials because that’s an important factor when politicians decide who gets money. There’s only so much to go around and they’re not going to throw it away.
Kunze, to a fault, invests everyone remotely associated with the park and its success with praise and a sense of “we’re in this together”. A case in point, because of the grant from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and help from Philly Parks and Recreation, the Friends are getting a cake for the shed dedication that will be iced with a thank you to the two organizations. Who does that? You’re not doing her a favor, you’re helping each other. It seems like every time she notes a park community event, she’ll mention it’s sponsors.
On the night of the park group’s first meeting of the year, Philip Balderston, owner of the adjacent and aptly named Parkside Apartments, met the group to discuss ways he could help the park, thereby helping his apartment building. Before they even got into the meeting room to discuss anything, Kunze turned to him and asked him if the park group could do anything to help him. It’s this kind of attitude, attention to possible partner needs, that makes her hard to ignore, or resist.
The Friends of Overington Park are not successful because they sit in the back seat and let others take the lead. The park would be looked after regardless of whether they received outside help or not. Their work just motivates the city and local officials to jump in to assist, lest, dare I say, they look indifferent. The city, already cash strapped, is not throwing money at all the parks across the city with hopes someone will maintain them. Having a group already in place is the only way they’re going to pitch in.
But the fight for the health of the park continues. With the newfound success of the shed, the Friends of Overington Park are looking to get the park better lighting this year. “It’s scary at night” says Kunze. “We know that the lighting will be an on going effort that will take some time. This year? We don’t think so, but we’re in it for the long haul, so someday.” The work never ends.