East Kensington is a neighborhood without a park.
Well, not an official park, any way.
Nonetheless, neighbors have taken gaps left by the collapse of industry and decades of blight and turned them into lush pocket parks, gardens, and community gathering spaces.
One of the biggest and longest lasting of these unofficial parks is the Emerald Street Park, a space that once hosted about nine row homes at Dauphin and Emerald streets.
And while the park has evolved into a well-maintained community meeting place over the last 15 years, residents are learning the hard way that the difference between an official park and unofficial park is a crucial one.
For the third time in two years, nearby residents and the East Kensington Neighbors Association are fighting to keep Emerald Street Park from being broken up and sold to developers.
It’s a costly, nerve-wracking ordeal for the cash-strapped non-profit, which works to address vacant land and promote the gentrifying neighborhood, among other things.
And with the rising property values of Fishtown and Northern Liberties spilling over into East Kensington, Emerald Street Park has been subject to increasing demands for development.
In 2009, 2303 Emerald St. was forced into a sheriff’s sale by a real estate developer. When that lot came up for sale on the public market in 2010, Jeff Carpineta, president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association, reached an agreement with the owner, took out a mortgage, and purchased the parcel.
Last winter, the adjacent lot, 2305 Emerald St., was forced into sheriff’s sale by the same developer.
EKNA scrambled to delay the sale through Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez’s (D -7th dist) office. With the help of about 100 residents, EKNA and the New Kensington Community Development Corp. raised $8,650 to purchase the property at the sheriff’s sale. The NKCDC currently holds the title to that lot.
The latest battle centers on 2315 Emerald, a lot the current owners are looking to sell — something neighbors fear could lead to a home being built on the site.
Over the last month, Carpineta and EKNA have been on an exhaustive campaign to raise funds. With about two weeks left before the sale date, they’ve raised roughly half of the $34,000 needed.
While there is no purchase contract in place, Carpineta said the owners of the property have been generously working with the community.
Even if EKNA wins this fight and raises enough money, the park remains vulnerable to similar scenarios in the future.
According to a report on the lack of local parks published by EKNA, Core Realty purchased four lots at the center of the park through the city’s Redevelopment Authority in 2005.
Two other plots at the north end of the park are held by absentee landowners, and are tax delinquent.
“It would be an incredible strain on the community to have to acquire these properties at sheriff’s sale,” states the report, which was released in May. “Such a purchase would require sacrificing the entire EKNA budget dedicated to street cleaning, children’s workshops, landscaping and tree plantings, community events, and other activities.”
Still, Carpineta said Core Realty has been open to helping preserve the parkland, and the city is working to prevent the tax delinquent lots from going to sheriff’s sale.
To Carpineta and others fighting to preserve Emerald Street Park, the effort is an important part of bringing protected green space to this formerly industrial neighborhood.
“Public, lush green spaces were never part of the neighborhood plan,” said Carpineta. “But, a healthy, happy neighborhood needs both development and green spaces.”
Today’s park evolved out of an anti-blight effort targeting the burned and abandoned homes that once lined the 2300 block of Emerald Street.
In 1996, through a program run by the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, residents cleaned and greened lots throughout East Kensington. Using the collection of lots at Emerald and Dauphin streets — just across the street from what is now a the Emerald Street Urban Farm — residents installed benches and planted trees to create a “neighborhood oasis.”
And, Carpineta said, it was through the work of residents that the park was maintained.
It’s not maintained under the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, he said, and all programming — Emerald Street Park hosts musical performances, various classes and art events as well as a recent wedding — is scheduled by local residents.
Other public spaces in East Kensington include Pop’s Playground and a playground on Hagert Street, both mostly paved spaces — Pop’s is a skateboard park, playground, dog park and activity center.
“Neighbors created this green space with their energy, their hearts and mostly, their own budget,” Carpineta said.
And this year, locals have been likely been doing more work than ever before. The city trimmed about $420,000 from its budget by cutting the Community LandCare Program, which enabled groups to tend about 2,400 vacant lots.
Yet, EKNA has kept the Emerald Street Park a clean, green wonderland in an otherwise completely urban environment. And Carpineta said the idea wasn’t simply to keep a park open for local use, but to create a place for families and children — a place where future generations can relax and play in nature.
“It’s a place where the community can recharge their batteries,” he said. “But, it’s not just about our good times. It’s about the coming generation … Otherwise, no one has really protected a site [in East Kensington] for future generations.”
EKNA is gathering funds now, and Carpineta said he hopes the neighbors can save the place.
EKNA has a donation program set up to help the community purchase the lot. If successful, Carpineta said, supporters would set up a community-based non-profit group to hold the title to the lot under the auspices of EKNA.
If you’re interested in helping support the park, visit www.ENKA.org/donations to learn more about the park and how you can help.
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215 354 3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Brian Rademaekers can be contacted at 215 354 3039 or email@example.com
Note: This article was upated with additional information from the NKCDC and EKNA.