Are we sick of the playground-at-McMichael issue yet?
When a neighbor recently emailed us that McMichael should be left alone, one of his reasons stuck us as untrue: that this park is already thoroughly enjoyed by the community as it is.
Because as folks who walk East Falls for literally hours every day, McMichael to us stands out as a dead zone — sorry! It’s a beautiful dead zone, perhaps the most beautiful dead zone ever. But still. There’s a chill here, even on the hottest Summer day.
Forgive us, we’re not born & bred Fallsers; we hold no hushed reverence for the sacredness of this space. To us, it’s a city park like any other city park we’ve seen — except this one seems oddly unassuming, next to the stately, landscaped homes surrounding it.
Before we learned McMichael’s lack of, well, anything was intentional, we kinda felt sorry for the place, and assumed either there was no budget for more amenities or else maybe East Falls didn’t care so much about neighborhood parks, with the Wissahickon so close.
No disrespect, but from our (relative) “newbie” viewpoint, McMichael seems kinda under-used, and it could use a little love. Just an observation from two “outsiders” who grew up in two entirely different places, where blocking neighbors from their right to a playground in a public park would’ve been unheard of.
And now another local “outsider” shares similar observations in a provocative online editorial, “McMichael Faces a New East Falls” by Town News Today editor Judy Gotwald.
Gotwald?! Fallsers may find Judy’s surname kinda familiar — “Gotwols” is one of the largest and oldest families here, and although Judy’s husband’s branch has tweaked the spelling, his roots still go back centuries. Judy lived here for 10 years in the 80’s, and has been a part of Redeemer Church’s community for over 38. (She now lives nearby in Wissahickon).
Judy’s blog “Town News Today” covers a variety of items in East Falls, Manayunk, and Roxborough. We partner with Judy for occasional “hard news” pieces, and were surprised (and curious) when she reached out to us about an editorial she was working on regarding McMichael Park’s controversial playground proposal.
She was baffled at how vehemently sure the opposition is, that the park is perfect as it is. Judging by their descriptions of McMichael — Were they even talking about the same park? The McMichael she knew was an empty stretch off busy Henry and Midvale. And it already had a playground: a simple turtle statue missing its tail.
Neighbors have been dying for a real playground here forever! What’s the deal with preserving “passive” space? Could the small minority against it really know what’s best for the whole community? Or could something else be going on….?
Being a reporter, Judy researched not by googling but instead delved into field work with some park-watching IRL. She decided Manayunk’s Pretzel Park would make a good comparison with McMichael — we agree. Although a much smaller space, it’s still centrally-located, and serves a similar demographic.
Judy set out to answer two basic questions:
How much of a local resource is McMichael Park, really?
What do other neighborhood parks offer their communities?
Judy’s observations of McMichael echo our own: “A typical Saturday in McMichael Park will find the beautiful park deserted.” But just a few miles up Ridge in Manayunk, Pretzel Park “is a community hub” any day of the week.
The Tuesday evening she chose to hang out in Manayunk’s greenspace sounds like a modern Rockwell tableau. Dogs & owners coming & going to the dog park while kids enjoyed the playground nearby.
As the sun set, the children were replaced by a woman doing yoga — later, a man used a cross bar for chin-ups. In the grassy area in the middle, a guy & his son played catch.
Judy watched handball, tight-wire, a book club. Countless joggers and strollers, criss-crossed the park every which way. (PS. on Saturdays, the space features a Farmer’s Market!)
Contrast this with McMichael, where Judy noticed a lack of sidewalks or pathways in the park, making it less accessible for strollers and just generally not terribly inviting for most pedestrians. The result? An empty park, “almost like a shrine.”
And the near-neighbors like it this way. Despite the buses & heavy traffic on two sides, McMichael is often lauded in online discussion groups as “an emerald gem,” “a pastoral treasure,” and “a pristine natural space.”
The area the playground advocates are asking is barely 1% of the park, but relinquishing even that little bit would diminish McMichael’s value to the community, they feel.
Judy’s not so sure. And she wonders What’s the point of six acres of designated “relaxation space” in the middle of an urban community these days? Seems a waste of land that could be better appropriated by the neighbors.
Back in the Industrial era, most people worked 12 or more hours on their feet. In contrast, today the typical employee sits and stares at a computer all day. No wonder people want more amenities in their local parks — we need to move!
We also need to socialize, to build face-to-face relationships with other neighbors. As Judy observed in Manayunk: parks can be a fantastic place for folks to mix and meet.
Judy speculates perhaps the passion to keep McMichael “passive” is related to the park’s location in the fancier part of town. We do find it odd most of the backlash comes from homes along lush, winding lanes with “no parking” signs everywhere. (Despite all the driveways and garages, ahem.)
Does kinda make ya wonder…
Fortunately for activists everywhere, the days of popular movements being killed in committee are largely over, thanks to the internet. Even “Friend”-less neighbors with limited connections can organize votes, and leap over bureaucratic roadblocks via social media. Fundraising & crowd-sourcing further keep the power with the people.
We agree with Judy — it’s a new day in East Falls. If the community really wants a playground at McMichael, we’ve got all the tools we need at our disposal. May what’s best for the neighborhood win!
6/10/16 ALREADY, AN UPDATE: Big meeting June 28th with Philly Parks & Rec and Curtis Jones. Both sides will present, followed by a public forum to be moderated by PPA (including Q&A). No final decisions are being made, this meeting is just a first step in feeling out the neighborhood. (Can’t make it? Email Parks & Rec your ideas and opinions.)
“Ten years ago we didn’t get this far after six months of effort,” said longtime playground advocate Chris McCabe (more of the Penn St resident’s perspective here).
PS. East Falls Local is proud to promote events and activities for Friends of McMichael. Every week for the last 2 years we’ve been meeting here with other dog owners for neighborhood Pack Walks. Through every season, McMichael makes a lovely landmark we appreciate very much.