It’s Full Steam Ahead at Two Game-Changing Park Projects in South Philly

Connor Barwin, Urban Roots, the Philadelphia Water Department and others spearhead two major revitalization projects.

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The upcoming plans for Smith Playground | via Urban Roots

Connor Barwin has become somewhat of a folk hero here in Philly. When he isn’t making big time plays on the gridiron, he’s spearheading a few game-changing community revitalization projects at two South Philly parks through his foundation, the Make The World Better Project.

Through a partnership with the urban development non-profit Urban Roots Foundation, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) and a slew of other local stakeholders, Barwin and crew are in the thick of a major project at Ralph Brooks Park at 20th and Tasker in Point Breeze and are about to kick off their efforts at another one, Smith Playground at 24th and Jackson. Jeffrey Tubbs, a Philly-based developer with JDT International and founder of Urban Roots, said that the project took its, ah-hem, roots over two and a half years ago with a meeting with Jahmall Crandall, the founder of I.am.SP (short for I am South Philadelphia). Crandall’s original vision sought to redo the ragged basketball courts at the park. Let’s just say he got his wish and a whole lot more.

Tubbs said the ideas then started to snowball into something bigger. First, enlarge and resurface the court and outfit it with a pair of top notch hoops. Next, freshen up the tot lot with a softer look and brand new play equipment. Then, as Tubbs explained, the project reached a tipping point when the PWD got involved and provided nearly $200,000 to install green infrastructure–namely, a rain garden in the southernmost part of the park–and advanced storm water management systems.

Boom–that’s all, right? It turns out that this is just the beginning.

“It turned into a very substantial project … the Water Department took it to a whole different level [with their involvement],” said Tubbs. If PWD’s work started to move the scales, Barwin’s benefit concert featuring Philly-rocker Kurt Vile at Union Transfer pushed it way over the top and into the mainstream media, especially since the linebacker matched all the proceeds and raised $185,000 for the project, according to a press release.

The plan for Ralph Brooks

Ralph Brooks Park

Like most transformative projects, it has evolved over time. Tubbs said they have now cobbled together seven parcels (from various city agencies) that are directly connected or adjacent to the park in an effort to bring the neighborhood together at this new community hub. They’ve partnered with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) to bring a community gardening and urban farming element into the fold inside these spaces. Tubbs confirmed they are also working with the Mural Arts Program and have approvals to create “4 or 5” vibrant murals that surround the park, including at least one by artist Steve “ESPO” Powers. Neighborhood stewardship is vital for this project, Tubbs said they’re working to develop a Friends of Ralph Brooks Park, as well as a Gardens Leaders group with the help of PHS in order to maintain the gardens.

The iconic “Stop the Violence” mural that hangs over the park at 20th and Fernon, a reminder of the rough history of the Point Breeze neighborhood, will also stay and might even be touched up in the process. An “inter-generational gaming terrace” with passive seating  and tables will soon sit under the mural and overlook the new basketball courts. Tubbs said he envisioned it as a place for grandparents or neighbors to come a play chess and congregate to watch the action on the court. A final piece to the puzzle could be a docking station for the new Indego bike share system. “The idea is to create this network of spaces that improve and add to the neighborhood,” said Claire Laver, a key figure in the project as part of the Urban Roots and Make The World Better Project teams. “We’re optimistic that [the bike share] could become a component.”

A ribbon cutting to unveil the new park is expected to take place in August.

The Next Big Step: Smith Playground

Though it’s still under construction, the project at Ralph Brooks has been such as hit that the stakeholders, specifically the Water Department, wanted Urban Roots and Barwin’s Make the Worth Better Project to do it again, this time at Smith Playground at 24th and Jackson.  “We’re full steam ahead on project number two,” exclaimed Tubbs in an email. “It’s going to be one of the most innovative projects in the country!”

Whereas the environs at Ralph Brooks Park are packed in and in need of an expansion to create that sense of place, Smith Playground is an 7.5-acre Parks and Recreation site filled with football and baseball fields, basketball and handball courts and a rec center, all in desperate need of repair.

As such, structures with solar panels will shade the basketball courts, a state-of-the-art surface will don the reinvigorated football field and a fitness trail will be introduced to the site. And how about that rundown rec center? It’s getting remodeled as well and currently in the design phase. Tubbs said it will allow Parks and Recreation to double the amount of programming offered at Smith.

Promoting a healthy lifestyle is another key component to the plan, and Tubbs explained their mission goes beyond simply keeping kids active. “We will be building a kitchen for cooking and nutritional education classes using produce from local community gardens.”

Much like with Ralph Brooks, PWD will play a major role in the project and install mostly unseen, but vital, storm water management measures. The elements that are visible, such as the three rain gardens, will help beautify the park.

Funding a park revitalization project like this is often a major roadblock, but Tubbs said they have multiple commitments from key stakeholders such as Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office ($300,000), PWD ($500,000), Philly Rising and Parks and Recreation ($100,000).

On June 20th, Barwin will host a sequel to last year’s MTWB benefit concert at Union Transfer, with 100% of the proceeds from the bar and tickets sales going to fund the project. As with the first show, Barwin will match the funds that are raised in an effort to money and awareness for Smith. Given the success of the previous show, that figure could very well be over the $200,000 mark. Beyond being the proverbial face of these projects, Laver said that she’s been most impressed with how “actively involved personally” Barwin has been throughout the process. “He wants to be involved,” explained Laver. “He goes to the nuts and bolts meetings and is a really great community minded person as well.”

Interestingly enough, Tubbs confirmed they are also working with the NFL to help realize the project. (Let’s face it, it can’t hurt their situation when a multi billion dollar institution could possibly lend its generous support and nearly unlimited resources.) All of this, and they haven’t even started to pound the pavement in terms of their general fundraising efforts, which Tubbs said is forthcoming.

While it’s uncertain where all of the money is going to come from at this point, Tubbs noted that the time is now to make these, and whatever projects that may come down the pike, a reality: “With all of these amazing partners, I feel like we have such an amazing opportunity here to strike while the iron is hot to take this to the next level in order to make an impact in the city.”

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