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Why Clark Park Is West Philadelphia's Social Magnet

In spite of changing demographics around it, easy access and diverse programming still make it a welcoming place.

Christopher Maier

It’s noon on a warm Saturday in April and West Philadelphia’s Clark Park is bustling. The playgrounds teem with young kids and semi-watchful adults. The Bowl, a football-field-sized crater that used to be a mill pond, is overrun with youth soccer players. A group of men in their twenties and thirties kick off a game of pétanque (a French cousin of bocce ball) in the park’s central plaza.

Perhaps the biggest draw of the morning is the farmers’ market, which lines the northeastern edge of the park along S. 43rd Street between Baltimore and Chester avenues. Well over a hundred people are lounging in the grass or wandering among the dozen or so stalls, which feature vendors selling flowers, jams, veggies, hoagies, and more. A teenage boy moves through the stream of shoppers with a guitar in hand. A pair of college-age girls take photographs of a folk band that’s started to play near one of the park’s entrances. Dogs—and the people walking them—mosey along the perimeter of the action.

While the market is a magnet for many of the people who live in this part of West Philly, it also attracts folks from other parts of the city, the suburbs, and even out-of-towners who’ve heard of Clark Park and the celebrated Saturday (and a seasonal Thursday) market. Wherever they come from, the markets’ visitors seem charged to socialize. Friends spot friends. Vendors and customers drift into conversations that stray beyond transactional small talk. Strangers perusing the same baked goods stall or waiting in line at the Amish flower table spontaneously begin to chit chat.

Mid-morning Saturday in the central plaza at Clark Park. (Christopher Maier)

Tony West, who’s been affiliated (in various ways) with Clark Park for about 30 years, believes that programs like the farmers’ market are especially successful at bringing together people who might not otherwise have a reason to rub elbows. “If [Clark Park] were just a place where people go sit down and relax for a couple of minutes, it would still be a popular park,” he says. “But having activity makes it a destination and gives people a structure for interacting with each other.”

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At 71, Paul Foley has been familiar with Clark Park for many years. He used to live in the area, but migrated to the Germantown section of Philadelphia in the mid-1990s. Though he left the neighborhood, his love of Clark Park didn’t go anywhere. When the farmers’ market began in 1998, he had a weekly reason to come back to his old stomping grounds. Now he makes the hour-long commute from Germantown to Clark Park nearly every Saturday.

“On the weekends,” he says, “it’s a destination.”

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Spanning nine acres and serving as home to more than 300 trees, Clark Park has been a part of West Philadelphia’s University City neighborhood since 1895—long before the name “University City” even existed. Situated right beside the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and not far from both the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, Clark Park has certainly been shaped by its educated neighbors. Beyond students and professors, the anarchists, pagans, punk rockers, hippies, artists, and intellectuals who’ve been nesting in West Philly for decades have been using the park’s public space for just as long.

The park and its environs own a strong—and troubling—working-class history, too. During the first half of the 20th century, the eastern portion of West Philadelphia (close to Clark Park) witnessed the influx of vast numbers of poor African Americans who sought affordable dwellings as well as refuge from the housing discrimination proliferating in other parts of the city. This area became known as Black Bottom. In the 1960s, the Black Bottom community was shaken up and pushed out by an urban renewal campaign led by Penn. This is when the name “University City” was coined. This when the off-center intellectuals and artists started to filter in. And this is when Black Bottom essentially disappeared from the map.

Today, Clark Park and the community surrounding it hosts a socioeconomically diverse mix of Philadelphians, though that mix is increasingly skewing wealthy, educated, and white. As of 2010 census, University City is roughly 50 percent white, 25 percent black, and 20 percent Asian. Approximately 73 percent of residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree. And the average home sale price is up from around $110,000 in 2001 to above $300,000 in 2011.

University City (a name that some locals disparage and discard in favor of “West Philadelphia”) is a community with a deep history of change and adaptation. And, despite the friction and distrust bred out of the Black Bottom displacements, today it’s a community centered on tolerance and openness.

“West Philly has a history of social justice,” says 34-year-old Erin Engelstad, who’s a former president of the park’s leadership group, Friends of Clark Park, and current park stewardship manager for the Fairmount Park Conservancy, the organization that works to preserve and improve Philadelphia’s public parks. Engelstad, like many other champions of Clark Park, says that the park has been defined by an inclusive culture that’s been here for generations, and nobody wants to see that go away.

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It’s mid-morning on a Thursday in April. The sun is shining, but there’s still a chill in the air.

Erin Engelstad is sitting among a collection of tables and orange metal chairs that are scattered throughout Clark Park’s central plaza. Each of the chairs has “Clark Park” stenciled on the seat back—a marker that doubles as a branding device and a theft deterrent.

On this day, most of the 30 or 40 chairs go unused. The park itself is largely quiet. A pair of women pushing strollers enter the park at the northwest corner and slowly make their way toward the playground, where most of the morning’s action is taking place. A man sits alone on a park bench. A group of college-age kids cut through the park carrying coffees from Green Line, a stylish café nearby Clark Park that bills itself as “West Philly’s stop for coffee, culture, and conversation.” A woman lets her dog off leash to run through the grass.

Weekday mornings at Clark Park can be quiet, especially before summer officially sets in. In these moments, the park seems like a serene neighborhood respite, not unlike most parks in Philadelphia or in any other city. But, as Englestad begins to rattle off the list of activities that happen here, it’s clear that the park’s energy ebbs and flows. She mentions the Saturday farmers’ market, the monthly Uhuru flea market, the annual Woodland Avenue Reunion, a summer movie series, and the Dickens Day Celebration. (For reasons not entirely logical, Clark Park boasts one of the world’s only statues of Charles Dickens.)

Customers sitting outside of Green Line Cafe. (Christopher Maier)

Programming is a major contributor to the vibrancy here at Clark Park. Engelstad herself became involved with the park more than a decade ago when she moved to the neighborhood and decided she wanted to use all of the greenery as the backdrop for a noise-rock concert. With guidance from Friends of Clark Park, she submitted a permit request to the Department of Recreation, forked over a $25 fee, and the concert moved forward. This morphed into an event called Best Fest that she and six friends (all of whom moved to West Philadelphia from Virginia) ran at the park for the next six years.

The fact that Engelstad not only attends programs at the park, but has also initiated programs, reflects one of the characteristics that’s been fundamental to Clark Park for the past half century: This is a place where neighbors are encouraged to feel a sense of collective ownership, where shaping your own experience is exactly what you’re supposed to do.

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There are more than 150 city parks in Philadelphia and 111 of these benefit from a “friends” group, an organization that helps manage, maintain, and program the park as well as providing a community voice to the Department of Parks & Recreation and other stakeholders.

Friends of Clark Park is especially active. In total, their website names 18 West Philadelphia residents who assume organizational roles ranging from president to youth soccer committee chair. They are, in essence, park stewards. And as such, they find themselves thinking about nearly every aspect of the park, whether it’s time to buy new tables and chairs for the central plaza or to set the schedule of events in any given season.

By imbuing neighborhood residents with a sense of duty and obligation, Friends of Clark Park creates a core leadership that feels a genuine sense of ownership over the park. This place is their responsibility. If it falls into disuse or disrepair under their watch, fingers will point their way.

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In 2001, the Friends of Clark Park produced a long-term “revitalization plan” that called for a range of infrastructure improvements aimed at making the park a more welcoming place for all residents. As a result, gone are unnecessarily circuitous pathways in favor of sidewalks that more logically lead visitors through the park. The towering maples that once kept major portions of the park in near-perpetual shadows were scaled back to allow for more light, more openness, and more safety. An old playground was moved to a different part of the park and an unused flagpole was ditched to make room for a new central plaza that now serves as a stopping place for everyone from chess enthusiasts to lunch breakers to pétanque players.

(Christopher Maier)

With a fresh face, the park began to attract even more attention from neighbors and community organizers. Over the past 15 years, requests for event permits have exploded.

“We have so many special events scheduled that we can’t fit any more in,” says Tony West, who, among other things, chairs the park’s subcommittee on large events.

These events contribute to Clark Park’s increasing identity as a destination—as a place that people from around the city and beyond seek out, whether for the Saturday morning market or a Thursday night dose of The Two Gentleman of Verona.

While the spate of programming brings new people with diverse interests to the park for reasons commercial, cultural, social, and more, it also means that park sometimes feels more like an entertainment venue than a serene place for neighborhoods to mingle.

Michael Nairn, a professor of urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a Clark Park neighbor, wouldn’t mind if there were a little more peace and quiet within the confines of the park. Standing amid a flow of shoppers at the Saturday farmers’ market, he’s catching up with Lisa McDonald Hanes, the recently dubbed president of Friends of Clark Park as well as a neighborhood resident and a landscape architect who helps design the park’s impressive array of plant life. “It’s programming, programming, programming,” Nairn laments. “If you look at this place, there are events constantly—some are planned, some are unplanned.”

Hanes agrees. “There are too many events,” she says. “The city doesn’t allow it to be open, passive space.”

Even if they wouldn’t mind a little less activity, they both recognize that the diverse slate of programming gets people out of the house and into a place where they can interact. “On Saturday, the park is the neighborhood living room,” concedes Nairn.

And of course, if they swing back on a weekday morning, they’ll find that Clark Park is serving up serenity in spades.

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The Bowl, which sits in the park’s center section (also known as “B Park”), was once a pond that powered a pair of nearby mills. Today it oscillates between being a soccer pitch, a Frisbee field, a fenceless dog park, and a free-for-all kid zone.

Raushanna Thompson, who’s in her mid-30s and works as a personal trainer, comes to The Bowl most days of the week to let her dog, Splash, get some energy out. Thompson moved to the neighborhood six years ago but says she never really spent time at Clark Park until two years ago, when she adopted Splash.

She and Splash typically hang out for an hour or so at a time—and she says she frequently strikes up a conversation with other dog owners who come to the park on a similar mission. The chats rarely go deep or last long, but they do establish a connection. Over time, she says, she’s come to recognize faces and to feel like she has a stronger bond to her neighbors.

“The dog bridges the gap,” as she puts it.

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On Saturday mornings from spring to fall, The Bowl morphs into a youth soccer extravaganza. A crater in the ground the size of a football field, The Bowl is teeming with toddlers in jerseys—and parents who are cheering on their kids and catching up with the other parents.

The Clark Park Youth Soccer League, which was started by community members, draws in young athletes from all of the surrounding neighborhoods. To ensure that no families are left out, the fees for the season are $20 for the first child in a family and $10 for every additional child.

After soccer wraps up, parents leave The Bowl chatting as their kids run off ahead of them. At quick glance, you can see a range of backgrounds represented: black, white, Asian, Hispanic; dads in name-brand fleeces and moms in worn-out jeans. Half an hour later, some kids are still dashing around near the playground, shrieking and laughing as if the day has only just begun.

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Spruce Hill, Squirrel Hill, Walnut Hill, Garden Court—each of these neighborhoods nestles close to Clark Park and, undoubtedly, contributes its residents to the broad array of Clark Park users.

The convenience of transit breaks down participation barriers that might stand firm if Clark Park were a little harder to reach. The Route 34 trolley comes from Center City and drops riders right at the northeast corner of the park. Three other trolley routes include stops nearby. The Route 42 bus—one of the most used bus lines in the local transit system—picks up and drops off passengers just a few blocks north of the park. Baltimore Avenue, which forms the northern edge of Clark Park, sees a steady flow of traffic.

Health Center 3, a vital public health hub for many members of Philadelphia's struggling African community, is located just across 43rd Street from the park. (Christopher Maier)

And the mix of businesses, services, and institutions that reside close by contribute undeniable diversity to the Clark Park’s community. The University of Sciences in Philadelphia sits next door and even leases the southeast corner of the park. The HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy abuts the park, too—its presence in the community evident at the playground, where specialized swings have been installed to enhance accessibility. The University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University are also in the vicinity, each adding to the student population that’s hard to miss at Clark Park. Health Center 3, a vital public health hub for many members of Philadelphia’s struggling African community, is located right across from where the farmers’ market sets up; many of the center’s users move through—or pause in—the park as they come and go. A spate of new and thriving restaurants, cafés, and businesses along Baltimore Avenue have an almost symbiotic relationship with the park. On any given day it’s hard not to spot someone walking with a cup of something caffeinated from Green Line, the coffeehouse by the park’s northeast entrance.

Like other favorite Philly destinations such as Reading Terminal Market, Clark Park enjoys a luxury of location that keeps its base of users varied, replenished, and always coming back.

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“Where’s that?” asks Larry McNeil. He’s referring to Clark Park.

McNeil sits at a small desk inside the front door of the Kingsessing Recreation Center, where he’s one of the recreational leaders. It’s 3 p.m. on a spring Saturday and the rec center itself is relatively quiet. The building also houses a theater area and a boxing facility that, on weekday evenings, is packed to the gills. Outside, 20 or so guys are playing pickup basketball and eight boys are in the middle of a loose game of football.

On this day, Kingsessing’s users are 100 percent black, like McNeil himself. He explains that most of the people who spend time at Kingsessing come from the neighborhoods immediately west of here. Though up the street from Clark Park, this is an area that’s more economically depressed and witnesses significantly less foot traffic.

After learning that Clark Park is just a handful of blocks away, McNeill just shrugs. “I never heard of it.”

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If you spend a few minutes hanging around the Friends of Clark Park table during a nice Saturday at the farmers’ market, you feel like you’re part of a social club.

“If I sit here for four hours,” says Tony West, “I will see the Republican representative come by, the Democratic representative, the—” His sentence trails off as a neighborhood resident and former Friends board member, Brian Siano, steps up to the table to say hello.

The 53-year-old Siano, a white guy, is wearing a jean jacket and sling bag beneath his gray tousle of hair. Siano, who holds an office administrative job at Penn, grew up in suburban Cherry Hill but has lived in this part of West Philadelphia since 1983. He’s done a stint on Friends of Clark Park board and he’s a regular participant in park events.

Asked about the composition of the neighborhood, Siano describes a housing incentive program through Penn that offers sizable cash contributions for employees who buy a home close by. This has “brought in families and professionals,” he says, and resulted in a closer knit community composed of “pretty well educated” folks.

He describes the park itself as “an urban Garden of Eden. Everyone is welcome here.”

Being welcome, though, is not the same as being present. Siano notes that the area south of Chester Avenue is more economically depressed and that members of those communities use the park less and are less likely to assume leadership roles in Friends of Clark Park.

“I’ve heard people say we’re a white folks group,” Siano admits. And he posits that the park itself “is becoming less diverse.” A few moments later, he adds, “It’s homogenous in a way that I kind of fit into. I don’t want to disparage something that I benefit from.”

There’s no question that many people—Siano among them—benefit from the spectrum of official and ad hoc activities here at Clark Park, as well as opportunities to do everything from bumping into a neighbor to meeting a stranger to taking the family to the playground or walking the dog or simply finding a quiet patch of sunlight that’s perfect for reading a book. But as the neighborhood continues to change, park and community leaders may have to work even harder to ensure that Clark Park is a place that all West Philadelphians will call their own.

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What makes Clark Park the singular place that it is today? It’s a mix of so many factors, from history to location to the impact of an eclectic collection of users including “anarchists, Quakers, and professors,” says Friends of Clark Park President Lisa McDonald Hanes. “You can’t recreate the elements here.”

Siano agrees. While there may still be room for improvement at the park, there’s also plenty to appreciate. “In some ways,” he says, “we’re just really, really lucky.”

This article was written with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of a broader examination of the challenges, opportunities, levers, behaviors, and mindsets that impact socioeconomic mixing in public spaces and the civic commons.

About the Author

  • Christopher Maier is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, producer of the cultural event series Little Salon, and founder of the storytelling agency Made By Little.