by George Matysik
As a lifelong Philadelphian, I’m always thrilled to see the amazing public space revival we’ve had in Center City. Spruce Street Harbor, Sister Cities Park, Race Street Pier, and countless others have recently shown Philadelphians what can be possible with adequate investment in our public space. But I’ve always held a special affinity for those community spaces not grabbing the headlines. The “hidden gems” that are known by near neighbors (and an occasional Pokémon player), but don’t often make tourist guides and visitor websites. What follows are a dozen of my favorite public spaces…all across the city.
Just blocks from Wayne Junction (serving six SEPTA Regional Rail Lines), Happy Hollow (4800 Wayne Avenue) is the oldest recreation center in Philadelphia and a landmark in South Germantown. While most locals only recognize the historic 1911 George Pearson structure, that is only one piece of the story of Happy Hollow. Beyond Pearson’s masterpiece lies the understated 1958 field house by Norman Rice. While both structures are in desperate need of capital improvements (hello, RebuildPHL!), both structures also complement each other—and their surrounding environs.
Some of the best pickup basketball in the city, a renowned boxing program, and a newly refurbished baseball field—there’s much to be “Happy” about at Happy Hollow. But what’s Hollow? That would be the site itself—set in a former quarry, donated by E.W. Clark, as a place to seek respite from the rapidly growing city. The real sparkle in this hidden gem property is the brick path behind the playground, which leads to a large picnic area overlooking the entire complex. It’s an amazing sight to see.
Ironically considered one of Philly’s “postage stamp parks,” Howell is tucked neatly behind the Germantown Post Office (5209 Greene Street). But, don’t rely on a mailing address to find this park—you’ll need a keen eye and a dose of gumption to find one of Germantown’s most unique spaces.
From the Post Office, walk towards Queen Lane, careful not to wander up too many wrong driveways. At the large stone columns proceed up the private drive towards the large oak tree ahead. Known as the “Great Tree of Germantown,” it measures 17’6” in circumference and marks the entrance to Howell Park. Head left to the opening and find this magical meadow open up before you. A great place for a picnic or a wiffleball game. Seeing this space in its current form you may not believe that it once looked more like a junkyard than the pristine field of today. Through the dedication from the Friends of Howell Park group, they renewed and revamped this space in 90s, and maintained it ever since. Now, it’s up to the next generation to appreciate and preserve this special spot.
While “big sister” gets the attention of many runners, bikers, anglers, and hikers—these two appendages share equal beauty, with far less foot traffic. Abutting the East side of Lincoln Drive in East Falls, the East Wissahickon rises far above the valley carved out by the Wissahickon. Just west of Bob’s Bait Shop on Ridge—a great place to stock up before fishing the Schuylkill or Wissahickon–is the “trail head” for the Eastern Wiss. The trail heads past the edge of Philly University, and terminates at Blue Bell Park—where you can dodge traffic on Lincoln Drive to meet up with the main branch of the Wissahickon and famed Forbidden Drive.
Further Northwest, not far from the Kitchen’s Lane entrance to the Wissahickon, you’ll find
While the natural beauty of the woods is astounding, it’s the wildlife that steals the show at Carpenter’s Woods. Renowned particularly for its birding, it’s a wonderful place to wander and explore, but please keep any four legged friends on a short leash. We’d posit there’s more chipmunks per square‐inch than a 1980s toddler’s poster wall.
Tucked away in an exclusive pocket of Northeast Philly “celebrity” homes is the Glen Foerd Estate. An 1850s Italianate Manor on a stunning property where the Poquessing Creek (the City’s Northeastern border) meets the Delaware river.
Whether it was the mansion estates that formed the backbone of East Fairmount Park, or the former mills that would create the modern Wissahickon, the Fairmount Park Commission was no stranger to acquiring private lands to build out the modern day park and recreation system. Glen Foerd illustrates just how valuable those acquisitions could be.
Standing at the statue of “Little Ugly,” the former owner’s canine companion, you can imagine the Delaware River’s pre‐development. The grounds are a healthy mix of well kempt garden beds and ivy‐ strewn ruins from another era. Today the mansion is used for weddings (full disclosure: including my own!), art exhibitions, and community programming that keep the space active and maintained for generations to come!
Malcom X Park
When it comes to public space in Philly, it’s hip to be square. Beginning with Thomas Holme’s five squares in the grid he designed for Philadelphia (that Greene Countrie Towne!), this concept was extended throughout much of the city. Far beyond the Rittenhouse’s and Franklin’s of national prominence, you’ll find the Wharton’s, McPherson’s, and Mifflin’s that create neighborhood pride.
Perhaps no square beyond Center City creates so much identity for a neighborhood as Malcolm X Park in West Philly. In Jane Jacobs urban planning classic, she posits part of what made Rittenhouse Square so lively was the diversity of the built environment nearby. Bordering on the always‐animated 52nd Street, Malcolm X park draws heavily from both “The Strip,”as well as the quiet Cedar Park residential neighborhood nearby. The Friends of Malcolm X park are also renowned for their programming to draw in more residents—including the beloved Jazz Night which takes place every other Thursday during the summer season. In short: there’s nothing square about this square.
The Parks Alliance loves the concept of clustering amenities and bringing “wraparound” services to existing government facilities. For instance, recently CHoP, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, and the Free Library of Philadelphia joined forces to build the stunning South Philadelphia Community Health and Literacy Center, which combines facets of all of their missions in one space.
But long before the modern‐day iterations, Philadelphia had often sought to place “community infrastructure” in close proximity—a community campus of sorts. The sprawling Lawncrest Rec Center & Library, the majestic Kingsessing Rec Center & Library, and the neatly packed Cohox Rec Center and Richmond School serve as great examples.
However, one campus that truly stands out, lies on East Wyoming Street in Feltonville. There, the Feltonville Recreation Center, Wyoming Branch of the Free Library, and Clara Barton Elementary School all unite on Wyoming Avenue, creating a backbone to the community itself. What’s more is the beauty of the built environment. Barton School is on the National Historic Registry, with its classic art‐deco design. The Wyoming Branch has the distinction of being the last of the 25 Carnegie libraries built in Philly. And of course, we love Feltonville Rec, namely for the landscape design. With properly-scaled homes abutting the playing fields, this space has a true sense of community ownership in every way.
In the shadow of Memorial Hall is one of the biggest and best public pools in the city. Built in 1954, the pool was on the chopping block in the mid‐80s, with a few city leaders suggesting it did not fit in with Memorial Hall’s aesthetics. With Parkside neighbors backing, the pool was saved. Today the pool has the distinction as both a local treasure and “destination” pool for many Philadelphians.
Appropriately named after famed Olympic rower and, notably Grace Kelly’s father, the John B. Kelly Pool is one of the few Olympic‐sized pools in the area, which attracts and caters to both lap swimmers and open swimmers alike. The grass fields within the pool area allow for sunbathing, while the nearby picnic area makes for a comfortable atmosphere—and one we’re thrilled still exists! But our favorite part is weekends at the pool, where nearby picnickers provide the soundtrack for the day. With lifeguards and patrons dancing along the sides (there’s still no running!) it’s a neighborhood party atmosphere–and the whole city’s invited!
In recent years, we’ve seen a huge increase in development of riverfront parks along the Schuykill and Delaware. And while the high‐profile Spruce Harbor, Schuykill River Trail, and Race Street Pier have helped us envision what great, active waterfront space can look like—sometimes you still want a little peace and quiet.
Lardner’s Point, just south of the Tacony‐Palmyra Bridge (or the Tacky Palm, as we used to call it) is great place of respite in an area surrounded by heavily travelled concrete. Aforementioned three lane bride aside, Lardner’s Point is a quick escape off State Road, and a few hundred feet from the bustling road of I‐95. Despite this, Lardner’s Point exerts a sense of peacefulness and beauty that’s well worth the pit stop. Walk along the path, part of the North Delaware Riverfront Greenway Plan, and see the potential for an end‐to‐end trail along the Delaware. With much of the Delaware’s industrial boat traffic concentrated to the South, it’s a great space to see the potential for increased recreational use along our largest waterway.
If there’s a place where I learned to “love my park,” this is it. Tookany Creek Park is perhaps the most overlooked of Philly’s six watershed parks (Wissahickon, Poquessing, Pennypack, Cobbs Creek, and FDR are the others), yet Tookany is one of its most critical and endangered. Just this May, SPS Technologies in Abington and a former factory at Wyncote Commons in Cheltenham were ID’d for illegal discharges into the water, which is a constant problem for this space. Yet our good friends at Tookany/Tacony Watershed Partnership are always on the case—and have been working diligently to clean the park up—with a great deal of success.
Growing up in close proximity to Tookany Creek Park in the 80s—it was essentially off limits to many families in the area. But with an enhanced trail network, a new trail ambassador program, and added police detail—Tookany Creek Park is now a welcoming space for the Southern edge of Northeast Philly. Go for a stroll or a bikeride and check out the amazing wildlife. When you’re done, swing by the adjacent Juniata Golf, a city run course that’s great for all experience levels. One visit to Tookany Creek and I’m convinced you’ll love this park too!
—For much of the 20th Century, the epicenter of Philly sports was the corner of 20th and Lehigh—where Shibe Park, later renamed Connie Mack Stadium, dominated the landscape. For years, Connie Mack hosted two baseball teams (the Phillies and A’s), the Philadelphia Eagles, and numerous boxing, soccer, and political events. Just across the street was Funfield Recreation Center and Reyburn Park—spaces that were often threatened for demolition to create additional parking. But Funfield outlasted Connie Mack Stadium, and was ironically renamed Connie Mack Recreation Center. Later, it would be rebranded again as Cecil B Moore Recreation Center, after the civil rights icon and Philadelphia City Councilman.
See the story of Cecil B. Moore Rec Center and Reyburn Park is one of survival. At the time of the demolition of it’s high-profile neighbor, in 1975, Philadelphia Bulletin photographers captured crumbing walls in the basement of the Cecil B. Moore facility. Philly Voice reporters would capture those same walls—still in disrepair—during a tour for the Rebuild Philadelphia campaign this year. Despite constant threats and neglect—the structure still stands, and serves as a harbor to it’s community. As one of the largest recreation centers in city—art programs, computer training, and after school programs all run out of the site. Through Rebuild, there is now opportunity to invest in spaces just like this.
Sitting at Reyburn Park across from old Connie Mack Stadium, you can still close your eyes and get a feel for “what was.” Or, you can a look South to Cecil B. Moore, close your eyes and think “what could be.”
Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department includes a bevy of public spaces beyond their namesake facilities. Golf courses, senior centers, bicycle tracks, disc golf fields, historic mansions, and museums are just one page to the extensive Parks and Recreation portfolio. However, it’s a little golf range across from the John Coltrane House on N. 33rd Street that tops the list, as one of my favorite spaces to unwind.
Strawberry Green Driving Range (or Longknockers as it’s referred to by most) is just outside of city center, but feels like you’re miles away…that is until your stray ball heads towards a passing SEPTA bus. All things considered, from the skyline view, to the dirt cheap prices ($4 for a small bucket!), to the laid back atmosphere—Longknockers is a great place to grab some practice before heading to one of Philly’s six affordable public courses (Cobbs Creek’s 2 courses, Walnut Lane, Juniata, Byrnes, and FDR).
We love the unsolicited advice (most of the time), the comfortable beach chairs, and the great prices. So next time you’re looking for a quick escape: knock at Longknockers.