Category Archives: Neighborhood History

Parkside’s New Ambassadors Program

Our thanks to all members of the ambassadors program, seen here are Tracy Reed, Quentin Drew and John McFadden.

By Michael Burch

You may have seen the hard-working guys, pictured above, working around Parkside. They are part of a program from the Centennial Parkside CDC called the Ambassadors program. In an effort to learn more about this program, I contacted Chris Spahr, the executive Director of Centennial Parkside and asked him some questions.

PJ: Can you tell me what the Ambassadors program is all about?

CS: The Ambassador Pilot Program helps to achieve one of the goals of the Centennial Parkside CDC, which is to clean and beautify the corridors of East Parkside. To do this, the ambassadors are sweeping streets, cleaning vacant lots, and working to combat illegal dumping in the community. Our hope is that this will encourage residents and business owners to keep their sidewalks and lots clean and beautiful and extend their concern to vacant lots and alleyways in the neighborhood. It is also a sign that East Parkside is no longer a place where people can illegally dump garbage. Rather, we hope that this program will empower residents to take control of their neighborhood and demand an end to illegal dumping.

PJ: How many staff currently and what is their service area?

CS: There are currently three staff members and their initial focus areas are vacant lots, 40th and 41st streets from the bridges to Girard Avenue, and Girard Avenue from 40th Street to 38th Street.

PJ: Do you have a plan to expand the program?

CS: This project, supported by the Knight Foundation and Brandywine Realty, is currently funded through October but the CDC is pursuing additional funding to extend and expand the program.

PJ: One more thing, if residents should need help with a neighborhood problem, can they request help?

CS: Yes, if residents request help from the Ambassadors, this information will be relayed to management at the CDC, who can then add this to the work plan. Residents can also contact the CDC directly to request help with any specific neighborhood problems.

PJ: Thank you for answering our questions.  For residents that have a need to contact the CDC they can be reached at 267-225-8356.

 

Future Unclear For Welsh Fountain

by Michael Burch

A couple of years ago in the March 2014 edition, the Parkside Journal published a story about the fountain that sits directly in front of the Please Touch Museum. If you are like most people who live in Parkside or the people who drive by it on their way to and from Center City every day, you may not know the name of this fountain or anything about its origin. It is called the John Welsh Memorial Fountain.

John Welsh Fountain in Winter
John Welsh Fountain in Winter

It turns out that this fountain has some historical significance to the area because it was named for and dedicated to Mr. John Welsh for his service to the City of Philadelphia and to his country. He was instrumental in bringing the 1876 Centennial Exhibition here to Philadelphia in Fairmount Park. John Welsh as one of the original Fairmount Park commissioners and became the principal officer and president of the Centennial Board of Finance. If you were anything like me growing up in Parkside, you probably never knew any of this. My friends and I only knew that the fountain worked and that it looked great.

That was a long time ago and the fountain has not functioned in decades. A short time ago the Journal learned that fountain might see new life. After all things have been happening in Parkside, five years ago the Garden Club of America rehabbed Concourse Lake, the Catholic Abstinence Fountain is getting a face lift and serious plans are underway for the Parkside Edge Project to “re-image” the edge of Parkside Avenue beginning next month.

Sometime ago the Journal learned that Philadelphia Horticultural Society has been studying the possibility of rebuilding the fountain. We have not heard anything further from the Society and do not know the results of the study. It is possible that it was concluded that it was not viable to proceed further on such a project. The Journal will be sure to update our readers on any new developments regarding this iconic fountain. If anyone has picture(s) of the Welsh fountain when it was working, please email them to us at parksidejournal@yahoo.com.

We would love to see them and may show your picture in our next edition.

The Parkside Neighborhood: Rare Roots Run Deep

by Nikia Brown

From every corner of Philadelphia, its anthem rings true, “Philadelphia is the city of neighborhoods.” Historic in nature and diverse in form, the Parkside neighborhood, in particular, provides a vivid illustration of a historic, yet re-inventive Philadelphia. Several eras ago, Parkside was a destination for Sunday strollers and carriage rides, street vendors and park parades. It’s artistically designed Victorian buildings became the home and hope for many European immigrants and African-Americans migrating from the South.

An overview of the Exposition Grounds as seen from the Main Building in 1876. Courtesy: freelibrary.org
An overview of the Exposition Grounds as seen from the Main Building in 1876. Courtesy: freelibrary.org

In the 19th century, Parkside, formerly known as Blockley Township, was mostly utilized for its lush green lands. The neighborhood’s proximity to the railroad and Center City made it the ideal location for the nation’s 100th birthday celebration—The Centennial Exposition of 1876. The Exposition attracted tourists and settlers from all around the world offering a wide array of ethnic foods, vaudeville theaters, a grandiose soda fountain, hotels, and beer gardens. While the Exposition was a lauded success, Parkside suffered a grave decline after the 6-month long celebration. It took the courage of German-American entrepreneur, Frederick Poth, and the creative genius of 26-year-old architect, Henry Flower, to revive the deteriorating neighborhood.

The 20th century ushered in a surge of newly designed homes, German-born merchants and manufacturers, and a range of occupations from brewer to distiller, lithographer to mechanical engineer. On Viola Street, between 1900 and 1910, many households were owned by second and third generation middle-class European-Americans with Scottish, English, Irish, and German backgrounds. Interestingly, in the 1920s, the overly animated open markets of South Street pushed the newly emerging middle-class Russian-Jewish population to Parkside. The synagogue built on 41st and Viola Street continues to stand as a representation of yet another community that chose Parkside as their settling grounds. Today that synagogue is a Baptist church.

The southwest corner of 42nd and Parkside Avenue as it appeared in 1954. Courtesy: phillyhistory.org
The southwest corner of 42nd and Parkside Avenue as it appeared in 1954. Courtesy: phillyhistory.org

Nonetheless, with the devastating blow of the Great Depression and World War II, urban life increasingly proved difficult to navigate driving many of the Jewish residents to more outlying neighborhoods. This, as well as other episodes of, “White Flight” provided African-Americans an opportunity to find refuge in an unfair and uncertain America. Though the neighborhood remained fairly integrated for approximately 15 years, the African-American residents of the Parkside Historical District are the longest residing group to inhabit the area since it was built in 1897. With resilience and gracious tenacity, they weathered the cumbersome economic challenges of Parkside’s past and contributed to what is now one of Philadelphia’s most urban tourist attractions.

Another rendering of a future Centennial Commons area.
Another rendering of a future Centennial Commons area.

With Philadelphia’s recent designation as a World Heritage City and Parkside’s continuing development, this neighborhood is bound to attract, once again, the diverse communities that planted its roots to opportunity. The Fairmount Park Conservancy, with assistance from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation, has funded the creation of the Centennial District Master Plan. The projected 300-million dollar 20-year plan includes streetscape improvements along Parkside Avenue, renovation of the Park’s Concourse Lake, play fields opposite Memorial Hall, and a new transit line that will connect the area to Center City. Today, Parkside residents can envisage a neighborhood that pays homage to the bustling economic activity and immigrant engagement of its distant past. Parkside symbolically stands as the bridge between rich Philadelphian history and the promise of greater cooperation, civic engagement, and community progress.

Liberty’s Torch on Display In Parkside!

By Michael Burch

Torch

Above is a picture of the original Stature of Liberty Arm and Torch as it was displayed during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition right here in Parkside, Fairmount Park Philadelphia. The Torch was on display to raise funds to complete the project.

With the Fourth of July just weeks away many people will be thinking about our country’s Independence from Great Britain some 240 years ago. About 100 years after that the French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi decided to commemorate America’s abolition of slavery and the Union victory in the Civil War, by sending a gift to America from the people of France. That gift of course was the Statue of Liberty. The statue represents the Roman goddess of freedom, Libertas, and in her right hand she carries the famous Torch and holds the Tabula Ansata, or tablets which represent Law. Originally designers planned to have her hold a broken chain, but thought such a move would later prove to be problematic. A small chain was added to the feet in the final version of the statue.

Now resting on Liberty Island in New York Harbor, it stands as a beacon welcoming people to the shores of America. The Statue of Liberty is a national monument with a very local, Parkside beginning. The torch and arm of the statue were first displayed in America at the 1876 Centennial Exposition right here in Fairmount Park. The exhibit later went on to tour other parts of the country, to help raise funds for the project. Finally, the entire stature was assembled and dedicated in 1886 and it has been at station on Liberty Island ever since. Happy Birthday America!!

Whisper From The Walls

by C. Fox Collins

In the Parkside area of West Philadelphia there is a special place in Fairmount Park, nestled between the Philadelphia Zoo and the Please Touch Museum, and just down the street from the Mann Music Center. The history you find there speaks about an interesting time in Philadelphia and American history.

Unfinished_Smith_Memorial_Arch_circa_1905_LOC_4a12601v
A look at the unfinished arches as they existed in  1905.

The Smith Memorial Arch was built near the turn of the twentieth century. Various artists contributed to the creation of this memorial. It was built in remembrance of Pennsylvania’s Civil War Heroes. The civil war was a time of great tumult in our nation. It was a time when families were torn apart by slavery and war. It was also a time when a collision between the past and the future brought our country to its knees.

When the monument was built, Fairmount Park was considered part the suburbs of Philadelphia. And it wasn’t called Fairmount Park. That distinction would come later. Fairmount Park came into being and grew, as the need to protect the water supply grew.

Whispering Walls sits at the base of the Smith Memorial Arch. The walls are half circles separated by the street that divides them. People come to the walls to talk. Or rather listen to each other. There conversations occur between people who sit thirty to forty feet away from one another.

“Close your eyes and speak. It’s as if the person you’re talking to is right there, sitting next to you”, says Sylvia Kim, {a visitor from Pittsburgh, PA}; she continues by saying, “it’s such a pleasure in the park”. The sound is carried by waves traveling around the circle. It makes for a fun experience. So the next time you ride through Fairmount Park, stop, look and listen to the whispers from the walls.

New Executive Director of Belmont Mansion Brings New Vision

by Nikia Brown

The picture above shows Ms. Audrey Thorton, Founder of the Underground Railroad, along with the new Executive Director Ms. Naomi Nelson.
The picture above shows Ms. Audrey Thorton, Founder of the Underground Railroad, along with the new Executive Director Ms. Naomi Nelson.

With an air of nostalgia, Naomi Nelson, the new Executive Director of Belmont Mansion, took me on a journey through the corridors of what she calls a, “dynamic universe.” When Nelson began working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the age of 22, she had no idea that it would lead to a lifelong career in museum education. This experience far exceeded any expectations she had about working in a creative environment and unlocked a deeper passion for art and culture. The staff and guest lecturers at the Art Museum inspired Nelson to pursue an education in art history and theater. “Museums have the ability to create dynamic change,” she says.

The guest exhibitor, Charles Searles, in particular, opened the door for Nelson to meet artists who laid the foundation for African American Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.

Charles wanted to change the narrative; he wanted to create a platform where African-American artists weren’t on the periphery, but in the main galleries,” she said proudly. Since that time, Nelson has committed her life to making information about African American art, history, and culture more accessible to all groups of people.

From 2003- 2007, Nelson served as the Vice President of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. While leading programs on past and contemporary forms of slavery, Nelson realized that “the freedom for Black artists to be recognized as legitimate artists by mainstream America is not separate from the ultimate struggle for freedom for all Black people.” “The Underground Railroad provides a template for people of diverse backgrounds to come together for a common goal,” she asserts. “How can we create a construct for the future if we do not know our past?” she asked rhetorically.

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 12.20.53 PMIn her new role as Executive Director at Belmont Mansion, she hopes to build on Audrey Thorton’s 30-year legacy as President. She believes the Underground Railroad exhibit at the Mansion offers the proper lens to link historical slavery to contemporary slavery in an engaging way.

“We must lay the groundwork for the future by building on the past,” she says. Nelson references the crimes against Black people in Ferguson, New York, and Charleston as “violations on humanity.” She and her staff are currently training the youth in their Youth Docent Summer Program to address the crimes of today by reenacting the past. In this program, students reenact scenes from the abolitionist movement in first person narratives. The group recently delivered a performance at a major NAACP convention right here in Philadelphia. “I do not want millennials to be lost in this dialogue about the struggle for freedom,” cries Nelson. She sees the Underground Railroad Legacy Series as an “intergenerational, multidisciplinary” tool that can facilitate difficult and painful conversations.

Moving forward, Nelson hopes to “create collaborations that carry the mission and narrative of Belmont Mansion.” She strongly believes that the success of programs and exhibits hinges on the support of community partners. During our interview, Nelson lists a number of ways community members can get involved and further the mission of the organization. Belmont Mansion has a large, newly renovated space that is available for rent. The funds from rentals help to “maintain the property, satisfy operation costs, and bolster programs,” says Nelson. She also encourages community members to book individual or group tours, volunteer, or make a donation to the Youth Docent Summer Program. If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information about Belmont Mansion, you can visit their website at http://www.belmontmansion.org.

The Virgin Mary – Iconic Parkside Folklore Revisited

by Michael Burch

Virgin Mary Bush as it appears today.
Virgin Mary Bush as it appears today.

In a little over two weeks from now, the World Meeting of Families Conference will be held in Philadelphia (September 21-27), and as we all know Pope FRANCIS will be in our city as part of the festivities. Since there has not been a papal visit to the City of Brotherly Love since 1979, I wonder if the current pope is aware of the strange occurrence which reportedly happened here in Parkside.

As a long time Parkside resident, I remember hearing stories about the Virgin Mary Bush. Back in the 1950’s there was a sizable Catholic population living here in the Parkside area. Over the years, the Catholic population in Parkside has declined and Catholic schools in our area have closed, but in the 1950’s the Archdiocese of Philadelphia operated several churches and schools in Parkside.

According to this particular story, one September day in 1953, three young girls created a firestorm of religious activity along Parkside Avenue near 51st Street. The three girls, all 14 years of age at the time, said they had witnesses a vision of the Holy Mother standing near a bush in Fairmount Park. According to them, the vision of Mary wore a blue veil and a white gown.

The following day, the word spread throughout the neighborhood about the apparition the girls claimed to have seen. The three girls returned to the bush with friends and neighbors. Some of these friends said they also saw the image of Mary in the branches of the bush. Others in the group said they also detected the smell of roses coming from the vicinity of the bush. (The scent of roses and other flowers often accompany these types of phenomena).

The picture above shows faithful believers at the iconic Virgin Mary Bush in 1953.
The picture above shows faithful believers at the iconic Virgin Mary Bush in 1953.

Word soon spread that the bush allegedly had healing powers.. This generated even more interest. Increasing numbers of onlookers visited the bush in the days that followed. By some accounts, as many as twenty thousand people visited the bush.

According to this particular story, one September day in 1953, three young girls created a firestorm of religious activity along Parkside Avenue near 51st Street. The three girls, all 14 years of age at the time, said they had witnesses a vision of the Holy Mother standing near a bush in Fairmount Park. According to them, the vision of Mary wore a blue veil and a white gown.

As the crowds grew, a new story spread that the Virgin Mary would make ‘another’ appearance about a month later on October 25th. According to official reports of that time, more than fifty thousand people showed up on that date for what they hoped would be a ‘return appearance’ of Mary. However nothing appeared that night or any of the following nights. Despite this, however, the faithful adorned the bush with crosses, rosaries, and large monetary offerings to the Virgin Mary. The money was collected and used to build a nearby gazebo (and probably the fence) that still surrounds the bush.

More than 60 years later, the bush is still there along with a large wooden cross and plastic statue of Mary which is attached to the bush. While no one can state or prove with certainty whether or not an apparition of the Virgin Mary ever appeared, it is a fact that thousands of Philadelphia area residents believed it did happen. Even today there are people who continue to discuss “memories” of what was an emotional event for them.

At the time this occurred, the official statement from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was that this was all a mass hallucination. Since there have been no reports of the image of Mary appearing since 1953, I am inclined to agree with this official response. Although there is no undisputed “proof” that an apparition of Mary actually appeared, I believe this story should be regarded as a part of Parkside’s diverse religious heritage and rich cultural folklore. However, I think it should be noted that the bush and the shrine dedicated to it were posted on Philadelphia’s tourism materials until 1983.