History and Context:
The Catharine Park Project is a 930 square foot garden at the corner of 22nd and Catharine Streets. Originally created by the Rizzo Administration in the 1970s in preparation for the Bicentennial, it unfortunately became a hotbed of criminal activity by the early 1980s as the neighborhood suffered through difficult times. Drug dealing in the garden was common, as was using it to break into the neighbor’s house at 2202 Catharine Street. In response, the City of Philadelphia closed and locked the lot with a chain-link fence preventing use by the public at large.
Despite being forbidden from using it, save a cadre who held keys to the lock, the nearby citizens, both old and new, greatly valued it as passive open space. In 2007 they successfully blocked the Philadelphia Department of Public Property, which owns the lot, from selling it for commercial development because they wanted it to remain for neighbors and residents for decades to come. From that effort, neighbors partnered with SOSNA to collaboratively design a concept site plan. Volunteers tackled the low-hanging fruit of the project in 2010 while funding was sought and successfully negotiated an Urban Garden Agreement with Public Property permitting access to the lot and taking over maintenance responsibilities.
The project transformed the municipally-owned open space from a neglected garden into an innovative public pocket park. Renovating this park had made adjacent properties more attractive to investment and catalyzed economic development, a core mission of the South of South Neighborhood Association. With hundreds of similar lots around Philadelphia, this project provided a template for neighborhood-based non-profits to create passive open spaces in their own communities. As Public Property Commissioner Joan Schlotterbeck stated in a letter of support for an application to a grant from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, “In our inventory of public property, we have many lots just like 2200 Catharine Street. We believe that the successful implementation of the plan at 2200 Catharine Street will inspire similar transformations at these lots around the city.”
In 2005, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) first identified 2200 Catharine Street and other lots like it in the neighborhood as prime opportunities to create more green space. In acknowledging the dearth of such spaces in the community, PCPC’s South of South Community Plan stated:
“The South of South neighborhood contains several garden plots that have been maintained by residents for years. In a neighborhood without sufficient access to green space, these gardens might provide opportunities for conversion to public parks . . . some possibilities include publicly owned property . . .that may lend themselves to increasing green space in the neighborhood.”
In 2009, in its South of South Walkability Plan, PCPC again highlighted this issue, stating, “The South of South neighborhood has one of the lowest amounts of green space in Philadelphia.”
Even in tough economic times, the City of Philadelphia has made the creation of 500 new acres of green public space a top priority of its Greenworks Philadelphia plan. As recently as December 7, 2010, the City, in announcing its Green2015 Action Plan, the City committed to targeting lots just like 2200 Catharine Street, as well as public school yards, to achieve this ambitious goal. Because the efforts at 2200 Catharine Street so perfectly dovetail with the City’s efforts Mayor Michael Nutter has issued a letter of support for the project.