TJ Holloway stood atop a shaded picnic table laden with boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, intended to be given out to nearby Sharswood residents that afternoon.
“This place is like a refuge,” said Holloway, an elementary school teacher.
Several feet away sat beds of fruits, vegetables and herbs, alongside newly planted trees and a spacious grass lawn.
“Just being around all the green stuff alone makes me happy,” he added.
The North Philly Peace Park, located on 22nd Street near Jefferson, spans roughly the length of the city block.
The only existing structures are two unrenovated rowhomes, which volunteers like Holloway are working on renovating.
Yet, in the coming months, volunteers expect a new state-of-the-art pavilion to be constructed in the center of the park, the park announced on its webpage.
Park volunteers launched a crowdfunding campaign for the pavilion in June, which took less than two months to reach its fundraising goal.
The campaign raised $59,894 and gained support from several large sponsors, like Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Architects, Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia and YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School, according to the campaign’s page.
“The Campus of the North Philly Peace Park will be forever changed, and with everything else going on in the world our free programs and services will now be even more impactful thanks to you all,” the park posted to their Facebook page July 13.
A DYNAMIC DESIGN PROCESS
The park has come a long way since its founding in 2012, when a Sharswood resident named Tommy Joshua Caison and a group of like-minded neighbors came together to repurpose a vacant, trash-strewn tract of land near 23rd and Jefferson Streets and turn it into a community garden, according to their website.
In the eight years following, the park would become embroiled in a dispute with the Philadelphia Housing Authority which would eventually force the park to relocate but also garner widespread support from the Sharswood community, reported Generocity.
With fundraising and design efforts for the new pavilion finalized, volunteers aim for construction to start this fall, according to the campaign’s webpage.
The pavilion will help solidify the park’s place within the Sharswood community, said Daniel Lee, principal at BCJ Architects. He added it couldn’t have been done without the dedication of the park’s volunteers.
Lead designer and volunteer Nyasha Felder, in partnership with BCJ Architects, spearheaded plans for the pavilion in 2018.
The process began with a series of community meetings where Sharswood residents could provide input on the park’s expansion. Felder also called on local artists to submit proposals of their own for the pavilion, WHYY reported.
Renderings of the pavilion available on BCJ Architects’ website show an open-air structure, complete with classroom space and kitchen facility. The pavilion will be used for the park’s free educational programming, which ranges from health and wellness sessions to vegan cooking and green education, according to the project’s fundraising proposal.
To accommodate programming needs, the structure will incorporate moveable partitions in the interior and include a wrap-around porch to make the pavilion more accessible from all sides of the park’s garden, Lee added.
“Before even starting the design process, we really wanted to understand the park’s mission, as well as their goals and aspirations for the future,” Lee said. “Working closely with park leaders, we wanted to design a flexible space able to accommodate the many different types of programming the park does.”
The park’s free programming centers around several action areas: organic urban farming, sustainable education, community building and “Green Wall Street,” a weekly pop-up market where entrepreneurs can sell natural products. These initiatives are all aimed at addressing issues of displacement, food insecurity and poverty in the surrounding neighborhood, according to the park’s website.
Owen Fitzpatrick, who moved to Brewerytown from Washington, D.C. two years ago, teaches yoga at the park Saturday afternoon and is looking forward to participating in programming once the pavilion is complete, he said.
Fitzpatrick installed Wi-Fi in a row home nearby and hopes to teach a course on computer programming and digital literacy in the pavilion, he added.
“As a recent Philly transplant, I really wanted to take an active role in my community,” Fitzpatrick said. “After meeting [Caison] and learning more about the park, I wanted to contribute in any way I could.”
Kermit Green, a middle school science teacher who volunteers at the park, is developing a community-based participatory research curriculum to encourage community members to take part in academic research.
“There is often a disconnect between academic research and the communities they study,” Green said. “The idea with community-based participatory research is that the community is working directly with researchers to have their voices actually heard. It’s much more inclusive and produces better results.”
AN UPHILL BATTLE
As volunteers planned the park’s expansion this summer, they also grappled with their dispute with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which dates back park’s opening in 2012, said Sara Ozawa, a 2018 Haverford College alumna who wrote her thesis on the park in 2018.
When PHA announced a 10-year redevelopment plan costing over $500 million for the Sharswood neighborhood in 2014, the fate of the park, which occupied city-owned land, looked grim.
PHA planned to build a housing project directly on top of the park, according to their Sharswood-Blumberg Neighborhood Transformation Plan.
“When PHA began their development of the Sharswood neighborhood, I think there was a lack of awareness regarding the sovereignty of the residents in that community,” Ozawa said. “The displacement of Peace Park was a prime example of that.”
Back-and-forth between volunteers and the PHA resulted in the park’s relocation, but the dispute didn’t end there, Ozawa added.
In July, volunteers formed the Peace Park Property Rehabilitation Brigade, which sought to repurpose the rowhomes on the park’s property that had long been blighted with drug activity and prostitution, according to a post on the park’s Facebook page.
The volunteer brigade began cleaning and renovating the two vacant properties, aiming to repurpose the spaces for community healing, according to the park’s GoFundMe campaign.
On the morning of July 20, however, approximately 25 PHA officers descended on the properties and declared them unlawfully occupied, according to an Instagram post from the park.
A PHA spokesperson later apologized for the raid and both parties worked out an agreement to grant permission for the park to use both properties, one as an administrative building and the other for storage purposes, WHYY reported.
As the park has worked to further their vision for neighborhood revitalization, PHA continued with the Sharswood-Blumberg Neighborhood Transformation Plan, said Leslie Smallwood-Lewis, partner at Mosaic Development Partners, a firm contracted by PHA to build new retail and housing units in Sharswood.
Next developments on the Sharswood-Blumberg Neighborhood Transformation Plan include a supermarket anchored shopping center at 21st and Redner Streets, an amenity the Sharswood community currently lacks, said Smallwood-Lewis.
There needs to be more conversations between grassroots organizations like North Philly Peace Park and larger institutions like PHA, Smallwood-Lewis said.
“If you are doing larger projects as a developer in these communities, you really need to find ways to roll-up your sleeves and be a part of the communities, working alongside [community development corporations] and other grassroots organizations to help move them forward,” Smallwood-Lewis said.
As Sharswood and the greater North Philadelphia community continue to undergo wide-scale change, organizations like North Philly Peace Park are more important than ever, Ozawa said.
“Active members of the Sharswood community, whether acknowledged or not, have long been working to rebuild their communities by finding creative solutions to many of the issues they currently face to no fault of their own,” she added. “North Philly Peace Park is a testament to this exact strength and resilience and should not be overlooked.”