20 Years, 20 Stories: Clark Park

Jun 06, 2017 6 years ago

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the words Clark Park? We polled people and received answers ranging from simple things like sledding, dogs, drumming, trees, Charles Dickens, and soccer, to loftier responses like relationships, childhood, tranquility, and diversity.

The range of responses should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited Clark Park, West Philadelphia’s most beloved green space. The park is many things to many people—it’s a space for games of Frisbee, pick-up basketball, or Live Action Role Playing (LARPing); it’s a place to meet for an impromptu picnic, drum circle, or game of chess; it’s a venue for big events like yearly Shakespeare performances, UCD’s own outdoor movie series, or various music and art festivals throughout the year; it’s a welcoming oasis in the middle of the neighborhood.

The nine-acre Clark Park is nestled between 43rd and 45th Streets and Baltimore and Woodland Avenue. The park is named for Clarence H. Clark, the first president of the First National Bank of Philadelphia, who owned an estate at 42nd and Locust and the land which would later become Clark Park. 123 years ago, an ordinance was passed condemning the land, which had been used as a public dumping ground. Clark gifted the land to the city, and in the deed specified that the property could not be used for anything other than park purposes. The park was dedicated on January 18th, 1895, and in 1901 Clark Park became home to an iconic statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell, the fictional heroine of Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop. In 1961, a $40,000 investment provided for many of the park's most well-used amenities, including a basketball court, the tot-lot, drinking fountains, and checker tables.

In 1973, the volunteer group Friends of Clark Park (FoCP) was formed to oversee maintenance of the park, yet the sprawling green space struggled well into the late 1990s. The statue of Little Nell was vandalized in 1989, later repaired through a fundraising effort. In her book The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets, former University of Pennsylvania president Judith Rodin described how, “Trash and broken glass surrounded the Dickens statue and littered the park. More than once, the neighbors fought the city just to get the grass cut. Lacking lights, the park was off-limits after dusk except to drug dealers and their prey."

Clark Park’s turnaround began in 1998, spurred in part by a farmers market operated by The Food Trust. Created in 1992 as the Reading Terminal Farmers’ Market Trust, the organization was formed to provide healthy food to underserved areas of the city. 

While early markets involved staff hauling food from the Reading Terminal Market out to housing developments since farmers weren’t initially comfortable coming to low income areas of the city, the model – and the markets’ profitability – changed once farmers began selling their products directly to consumers. Clark Park was one of the first locations of such a market, and served as an early success story for both The Food Trust and the neighborhood.

Sandy Sherman, the Director of Nutrition Education who helped launch markets back in the early 90s, described Clark Park as an ideal location for a farmers' market: the community was supportive; farmers felt comfortable onsite; there was ample space to display the food and for cooking demonstrations; and The Food Trust could collaborate with community partners like UCD and FoCP to make the market a success. Local residents “knew the farmers, they knew the educators, they knew the recipes and wanted new ones, they wanted to taste new things.” Other locations couldn’t compare to Clark Park due to the “community feeling and the space.”

In 1999, UCD partnered with The Food Trust to produce an ad campaign; centered on the market, “The Best Things in Life are Fresh” promoted healthy eating throughout West Philadelphia and other parts of the city. The campaign helped catapult the market; today it is arguably The Food Trust’s most successful market, and it’s certainly the longest running. “Farmers’ markets drive economic development and raise property values,” Sandy says. “People come and put money in and like it and feel safe. It’s a source of food for health, but it’s also a source of community and feeling part of where you live. Clark Park exemplifies all of that for us.”

UCD sought to build on the park's momentum by partnering with Friends of Clark Park and the Recreation department to start Party in the Park, a fundraiser for supplemental landscape and trash removal services. In its first year, the event raised $60,000 and Clark Park’s reinvention continued.

In 2001, FOCP, UCD, University of the Sciences, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Philadelphia Department of Streets, and various neighborhood organizations developed a master plan for revitalizing the park. With support from the William Penn Foundation, the Friends engaged Studio | Bryan Hanes, owned by a University City resident, to redesign the northern portion of Clark Park to include a new gathering space while preserving existing trees.

“The Friends raised the money to support the redesign,” says Erin Engelstad over coffee across Baltimore from Clark Park. “It really is unique—it doesn’t happen in many of the projects I work on.” Erin has a unique perspective on Clark Park: she organized events in the park as a community member, served as both a board member and former president of FoCP, and now works as a Park Stewardship Manager for the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Erin moved to 43rd and Baltimore in 2004. “I came from Virginia and we had one park in my town,” she says. “There were just cow fields everywhere, so I never had that experience of having my local park. But here, I see what it means to people, and how they take ownership over it.”

Erin and some friends discovered what it meant to have ownership in the park in 2005 when they decided to organize a music festival. With help from Friends of Clark Park, Erin and her friends threw a concert called Best Fest, a gathering the website uwishunu described as “a weird basement show taken to its cosmic potential and most public extreme.”

“It was very DIY,” Erin says. “But we somehow got Stinking Lizaveta to play, an awesome, old school, West Philly band people were really excited about it.” The Best Fest continued for six more years and featured musicians like Kurt Vile and Meg Baird.

Erin recognizes the value of public parks. “There’s so much to be said about the impact of green spaces on individuals, and on communities,” she says. “Especially in Clark Park, we have the farmers’ market, which is the community market and also where people come to see each other. It’s a space to interact that ideally feels clean and safe—honestly, sometimes it can feel safer than home or school." Given her vantage point working at Fairmount Park Conservancy, an organization dedicated to championing Philadelphia's parks, she certainly knows what she’s talking about.

She describes Clark Park as home to a “cacophony of experiences happening at any one time: tons of kids playing, folks having a picnic, there’s dogs, there’s a guy practicing his whip routine, there’s another playing the flute, somebody’s walking their cat. “This area lends itself to having a vibrant park,” she continues. “There’s so much here, so many different types of people. People really love it, and many people see it as their community backyard. It just feels good here.”

Sandy Sherman agrees. “Whenever I go there I bump into people I know from different walks of life.”

In the nearly 20 years since the farmers’ market began, Clark Park has evolved into a destination, both for casual visits and major events. Summers are packed with organized soccer, arts and craft fairs, music, beer gardens, and the sounds of squealing children. It’s become the neighborhood’s meeting place, its communal backyard, and a visual representation of the diversity that makes this neighborhood so unique.

Visit the Clark Park Farmers’ Market every Saturday throughout the year, and Thursday afternoons June through Thanksgiving. As of this summer, The Food Trust has worked with the city to close down 43rd Street is between Baltimore and Chester during the Saturday markets to create an even safer and more welcoming market. Learn more about the Friends of Clark Park and events throughout the year by visiting Friends of Clark Park's website.