How the Pandemic Turned a South Philly Golf Course Into the City’s Best New Park

The former municipal golf course at FDR Park became an indispensable natural refuge for many locked-down South Philadelphians over the past year. But the city already has other plans for it, leaving many to wonder what should happen next.

fdr park golf course

The pandemic turned the abandoned FDR Park golf course into the best new park in the city.

If you squint, you can see it.

Head down to FDR Park, the storied South Philly public space across Broad Street from the Sports Complex. Enter at 20th and Pattison, and find your way to the long building with “Welcome to the South Philly Meadows” lovingly painted across the side. Amble down the faded macadam path, gaze at the fields and trees and streams that stretch out before you, and then, well, just breathe.

You can go for a stroll on the lightly maintained path, demarcated here and there with hand-painted signs that let you know you’re on this or that part of the trail (and, naturally, invite you to follow the park’s friends group on Instagram). You can meander out for a picnic or cartwheel onto one of the numerous grassy expanses that seem to be gradually transitioning from something groomed to something wild and untamed. You can (and are ­encouraged to) adorn trees with, say, impromptu wind chimes made of tin camping cups, or matrices of plastic crystals. There have been workshops for creating fairy houses from downed tree branches. If you’re lucky, you might find the kids’ DIY craft space that gets set up on-site when the weather is favorable. You can sit on a tree swing and ponder the Girard Point Bridge in the distance.

You can do just about whatever you want here. It doesn’t seem like hyperbole to suggest that there’s no place quite like it in the city. And because the space is some 150 acres, you can do your thing without much fear of getting uncomfortably close to anyone. This space that’s come to be known as the South Philly Meadows has been a godsend during the pandemic — a place for kids to get their wiggles out; a place for adults to meet and brush up on their rusty IRL conversation skills; a place that’s not the same four walls you’ve been staring at every day of the past year; a place that’s teeming with nature and, much like our hair these days, charmingly unkempt.

A year ago, the South Philly Meadows didn’t exist. The reason such a space could simply appear the way it has, like a unicorn trotting into a forest clearing, is because of what it used to be. Look closely, and you can just make out that the Meadows was, until recently, an old municipal golf course. More precisely, the Meadows is what becomes of an old municipal golf course when you stop endlessly manicuring it. But just as quickly as this urban oasis appeared, it could also vanish, thanks to a plan put in motion by the city a few years ago to completely ­reimagine the space.

I’ve used FDR Park for two decades — I’ve done laps on the loop road that circles the “lakes” on the eastern half; my wife and I have taken our small children to birthday parties in its picnic areas and to play on its increasingly soggy playground. But we’re people who’ve never played a round of golf in our lives, so the municipal golf course — which takes up the entirety of the park’s western side, from 20th and Pattison extending south and west down to the Navy Yard’s ship basin — was a complete mystery before COVID set in. My family is among those that have turned to this space at a time when so many Philadelphians — thrust into highly regimented routines, working high-stress essential jobs, largely confined to their densely packed rowhomes — have sought refuge.

Plans to build the course began back in the 1920s, when the city was sprinkling public courses around town and FDR Park was still League Island Park, named thus because it was built on acres of marshland connected via a massive public-works project to a namesake island in the Delaware. This part of the city was once rural, known as the Neck, and was described by author Christopher Morley as South Philadelphia’s “canal country” and “wonderful Dutch meadows.” The original park was designed by the Olmsted Brothers, the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape-architecture titan who designed New York’s Central Park. Among the initial proponents of adding a golf course were those working and stationed at the neighboring Naval Shipyard.

Despite initial objections based on a supposed lack of public demand and the high cost of building a playable course on such inhospitable terrain, plans went ahead, as municipal plans tend to do, and the course was established in 1940. Over time, the golf constituency dwindled. By 1995, the Navy base was closed. Because of increasing challenges with flooding, the city’s Parks & Recreation department announced in the summer of 2019 that it would close the course later that year. This wasn’t long after Parks & Rec unveiled its year-in-the-works master plan for the space, a long-term $200 million-plus schema that would not just mitigate the flooding issues, but change the very nature of the park. At that point, the golf course was essentially a blank canvas — in the minds of planners, bureaucrats, and even many of the park’s most avid users.

Then came 2020, the pandemic, and a huge spike in park interest across the city. In response, the people in charge of FDR made the laudable decision to open up the defunct golf course to the public. And the public embraced it. Lots of people — many of them families with kids, like my own — have turned to the natural space as respite. Parks & Rec doesn’t count visitors to its parks, but based on trash pickup around the system, it estimates that citywide, there’s been a 50 percent increase in park use since the world shut down in March 2020. It seems fair to guess that FDR’s uptick has been bigger. According to Todd Pride, the immediate past president of the Friends of FDR Park (membership in which grew fivefold in 2020), “We’re seeing from residents that the resource down there is something that people are using, and they’re using it because they need it.”

The serendipitous, almost magical nature of the space, and the degree to which users are invited to make it their own, has engendered strong feelings. Which seems like an unmitigated good thing. Parks that are loved are good parks. Except there’s the issue of that master plan — informed by a year of intense community outreach to the park’s myriad stakeholders — which calls for large parts of what are now the Meadows to become a bunch of other things. In that space, the plan imagines a destination playground, first-for-the-park basketball courts, tennis courts, even kayaking. Most contentious, perhaps, is a 17-field sports complex with parking.

Over an indeterminate number of years, the plan as conceived would completely rework large parts of FDR in a way that Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of the Parks & Recreation department, bullishly predicts could make it “the most popular park in the city, maybe the region or the state.” The parks budget was scheduled to increase last spring, with $50 million specifically earmarked for FDR’s transformation in the city’s six-year capital budget proposal. Of course, the park plan was presented right before COVID changed just about everything. The Parks & Rec bump became a cut. The $50 million capital proposal evaporated. And the city recently announced another huge budget shortfall for next year. So the question on a lot of Meadows users’ minds is: What should happen next?

Making a plan for FDR Park was never going to be easy. FDR is, according to Justin DiBerardinis — brought on in March 2020 as the park’s first executive director — one of the most racially, ethnically and politically diverse parks in America. And the park’s various constituencies have a long history of making it their own.

As far back as the early 20th century, South Philadelphians thronged to the lakes, one of which was open for swimming, when a trip to the Shore was a trip too far. In the 1990s, skateboarders who’d been kicked out of Center City’s renovated LOVE Park turned the portion of FDR under I-95 into an internationally recognized, collectively built and maintained skate park.

Over the past four decades, Southeast Asian and Latino vendors have sold street food and wares in a market that has largely operated sub rosa, often retreating into wooded areas of the park when it was broken up by officials. In recent years, the city has been more welcoming, and ­DiBerardinis is working with Vina Sok, who is organizing a merchant association, to make the arrangement official. (Among Sok’s big plans this spring is a Cambodian New Year celebration at the park, a ­coming-out party of sorts.)

In recent years, a group of Mexican immigrants led by Eladio Soto has carved out a soggy pitch for a now-regular Sunday soccer league. “This place that Eladio is using for the league is not an ideal place to play,” says Alvaro Drake-Cortes, board secretary for the Friends of FDR Park and a liaison to the immigrant community. “There are holes that you would consider a safety hazard if you were having a kids’ league, but Eladio is taking the initiative and filling those places to make it safe.”

On Eagles game days, the park’s loop road has historically become a rowdy tailgating spot. The thing about even unofficial park uses is that over time, they become encoded in the space’s DNA.

Then there are the environmental challenges. The parkland itself was the product of a massive dredging project that closed the back channel of the Delaware River between League Island and the mainland, as well as portions of the vestigial Hollander Creek. (Followers of Philly politics will be unsurprised to learn that the project spurred a massive million-dollar corruption probe in 1911 involving the storage of dredged fill.) Now, climate change has made maintaining this reclaimed land increasingly difficult. In a 2019 good-riddance to the FDR golf course, GolfPass senior writer Tim Gavrich bemoaned its “poor siting,” noting that “the low-lying corridors were often more quagmire than fairway.”

All of which is to say that nobody seems to think the status quo is acceptable for a park that’s literally sinking. Regardless of your feelings about the aesthetics of the new plan (I’ve heard it called transformative; I’ve heard it called generic and suburban), it will, as Ott Lovell likes to say, eventually include something for everyone. And it will need to.

But one of the first steps involves the neighboring Philadelphia International Airport creating a wetland area — a place for all that problematic water to go, and a concession to the land’s native state — and fixing something called a tidal gate that, according to the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s Allison Schapker, project manager for the master plan, is malfunctioning, exacerbating the park’s water issues. Creating a wetland means digging up many, many cubic feet of dirt. The plan for that dirt is to use it to elevate the land slated for all those sports fields. And this is where things get a little tense. Changing the topography of a massive park takes time and money, and all that dirt has to go somewhere in the meantime. There were murmurs among park advocates that the dirt was going to land squarely on the parts of the Meadows that users have fallen in love with. And with funding a bigger question mark than ever, the worry was that it would just sit there, a taunting monument to what sometimes becomes of our best-laid plans.

Kathryn Ott Lovell, the Parks & Rec commissioner, is irrepressibly optimistic. Despite the economic uncertainty, she’s confident that the money for what she considers our very own Central Park will come through. She trusts the process. Bouncing back from 2020’s setback, she happily rattles off the funding she’s secured: $3 million from the state here, $1 million from the city there, a quarter million more from the state over here, another quarter million from the Fairmount Park Conservancy. And given the way she and her Parks & Rec department have come through for the city in this most trying of years — despite the budget cuts, despite having to hold a PPE drive at her house to keep her employees safe and our parks open — perhaps she deserves the benefit of the doubt (and, y’know, a less fickle funding stream). She praises the outreach efforts of the planning process and wants to respect all of the input that went into it. She doesn’t think those voices should be forgotten simply because “they might not be the most vocal on social media.”

Of course, no outreach effort can be exhaustive, and translating user feedback into a plan is as much art as science. And because of the pandemic, the Meadows now provides another type of feedback that suggests a different way forward.

Dena Ferrara Driscoll, a South Philadelphian and co-chair of the urbanist 5th Square political action committee, is a longtime FDR Park user who discovered the Meadows in the past year. She takes her family — her city kids especially love climbing on the golf course’s old-growth trees. She, too, thinks the space has tapped into something transcendent and wonders how it could be incorporated into the park’s future. She likens what’s happened with the Meadows to temporary infrastructure, like the pop-up bike lanes planners employ before they install permanent ones so residents can get a sense of them.

“I’m not saying ‘Leave it as is, it’s perfect,’” says Driscoll. “But what can be done to preserve that feeling of magic? I don’t think it needs to be all fully groomed fields. Maybe it’s more like there are some fields in the very far part. The question they need to ask, I think, is: What can be done in a more permanent way that feels like the Meadows? People like it, so how do we make it better and permanent?”

It all gets into some Big Questions about public space. Like, who decides what a park is? What’s the best use of a green space? And is it futile to attempt to impose our (river-reclaimed) will upon nature?

“What can be done to preserve the magic?” asks Dena Ferrara Driscoll. “What can be done in a more permanent way that feels like the Meadows? People like it, so how do we make it better?”

For centuries, landscape architects have butted hedge clippers over the ideal form for natural space: the rail-straight lines of French gardens? The gently manicured “artificial nature” of the classic English garden? The wild, overgrown Romantic style — often punctuated by ornamental faux ruins (or, fittingly, “follies”) — that nods to nature’s intrinsic power and beauty? Given that the water issues at the park stem from our initial attempts to exert our will a century or so back — and throwing good money after bad in the process — it seems worthwhile to take a moment now, before construction, to reflect.

The Friends of FDR Park’s Todd Pride is president of Legacy Land & Water Partners, which advocates for the conservation of natural resources. A native of Overbrook Farms, he’s spent the past dozen years also leading the Mid-Atlantic Youth Anglers & Outdoor Partners, which gets students and adults involved in fishing and conservation. Casting into FDR’s waters first drew him to the park and has inspired much of the work he’s done since.

“FDR is effectively the largest open green space in South Philadelphia,” says Pride, noting that the influx of Meadows users and the city’s looming financial difficulties are cause for “a hard pause” in the redevelopment.

“The Meadows has become a significant destination for individuals, families, groups, and the diversity that we have increasingly seen in the park is tremendous,” says Pride. He considers Ott Lovell a friend and acknowledges the difficulty of managing the numerous interests in the park, while adding: “We would be unrealistic as a friends group and also as a partner in the park to not look at what is going to be a long-term financial impact on what the plan was originally intending to do.”

Ott Lovell contends that this shouldn’t be a moment to scale back on ambition. She emphasizes that Philly desperately needs more high-quality athletic fields and notes that the complex would be an ideal place to host the annual Unity Cup, a tournament that draws teams from throughout the city. Alvaro Drake-Cortes is glad fields are being added but wonders how many are needed and whether the immigrants who’ve made FDR their soccer home will be guaranteed access to them. Ultimately, he wants balance between sports and natural lands.

“I’ve seen members from all walks of life using it for their individual purposes,” Drake-Cortes says of the Meadows. “It just feels like you’re back in the old country no matter what country you’re from.”

Ben Bryant, a local planner and designer and a South Philadelphian who uses the park with his family, says, “I can certainly see both sides of it, having worked on park projects in Philly.” Given his knowledge of the issue both personally and professionally, he says, “There is a real need for more athletic fields.”

He also notes that it’s natural for long-term master plans to “evolve and respond to changing needs and preferences” over time. (The Olmsteds’ original 1921 design for FDR, for instance, changed due to the impending Sesquicentennial.) “It’s likely,” says Bryant, “that there could be a tweak because the pandemic has changed the way we think about public space and parks. But it’s such a large area that there’s room for adjusting the specifics while still meeting the needs of different users, as well as the objectives that emerged from FDR’s recent master planning process.”

The pandemic has been an inflection point on so many fronts. It has created — perhaps crystallized is the right word — the need for a kind of space, a way of being, that we’ve lost touch with a bit. The beauty of the Meadows isn’t just that it’s a swath of nature. It’s that it’s a place where we can be unstructured; where our brains can unplug from our calendars, from the Zoom and doom; where our kids can happen upon things that surprise and delight them. Imagine how the Meadows could be incorporated into school curricula in our new world where getting students out of their classrooms will be ever more crucial. The fact that this space appeared just as we needed it feels like more than simple magic. It’s almost an act of collective conjuring. This is why people feel so strongly about the Meadows, and why those people want to reconsider what’s planned there.

“Will the master plan change over time? Probably,” Ott Lovell acknowledges. “The folks we engaged in a really intense way for a year, they’re still there. I want to respect the input that they had in the plan. And that’s what we’re moving forward with. But I want to respect the folks who just found out about FDR in the last 10 months, too.”

So what will become of the Meadows? As this story was being reported, Ott Lovell said she’d reached an agreement with the park’s airport partners to ensure that access to the Meadows won’t be significantly impeded by fill from the wetlands project, though the dirt will still be stored somewhere on-site for future use. As to what happens next and how quickly, that will largely be determined by funding. Ott Lovell says she anticipates moving forward with some of the more meaningful projects in early 2022.

“There will be many construction projects here in the next few years,” says park director Justin DiBerardinis. “But none of those projects are going to shut this park down. Our goal is to keep every square inch of park that we can open for as many people as possible throughout this entire run.”

And maybe that’s the answer. The Meadows will remain in use, a fact that may ultimately decide its fate.

“What I know from being in the land conservation space,” says Todd Pride, “is that open space will revert back to what it naturally was.”

Give nature another year or two to continue its reclamation project, and Philadelphians more time to fall further in love with the abandoned golf course, and it’s quite possible that this quasi-official use will become yet another part of the park’s DNA. After all, if the story of FDR Park teaches us anything, it’s that when it comes to designing parks, function always supersedes form.

Published as “A Change of Course” in the April 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.