After years of neglect, Kensington’s McPherson Square is a changed place.
The park, which houses one of the city’s remaining public libraries funded by the late philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, has long been saddled with the nickname “Needle Park” because of the illegal activity and drug paraphernalia that often could be found there.
But last Saturday, the park was lush and green, with volunteers everywhere repainting benches, preparing gardens, beautifying the area and doing everything possible so that the park’s derogatory nickname will be forgotten by future generations.
In fact, in what might be a sign of the community taking back the park, local children have created their own garden there
Saturday was the 11th annual “Comcast Cares Day,” when employees of the mammoth media company spend their free time toiling to improve the community.
In addition to being partners with local groups to clean and green McPherson Square, at 601 E. Indiana Ave., Comcast employees volunteered to assist projects across the city. Their efforts created a greenhouse at Olney Charter High School and offered a helping hand to volunteers at Frankford High School and the Northeast-Frankford Boys and Girls Club, among other organizations.
Bob Smith, Comcast’s vice president in charge community investment for the Philadelphia region, said employees volunteered to help 35 projects throughout the Greater Philadelphia area, and at more than 600 events across the country.
“A lot of companies will just write a check and not show up,” said Smith. “But that’s not investment. This is community investment.”
Although he didn’t have an exact figure, Smith said that Comcast provided more than $1,000 in paint for the McPherson Square project, as well as new playground equipment and repairs.
He said the company selected places for volunteer work on Comcast Cares Day by taking a closer look at the community involvement behind projects that had sought the company’s support.
“We get more requests than we could possibly do,” said Smith. “But when there’s a lot of community support, like there is here, that makes this worthwhile.”
Throughout the day at McPherson Square, between 250 and 300 volunteers —including more than 100 Comcast employees —painted benches and an activity room inside the library, established plantings throughout the park and undertook repairs to playground equipment.
Amy Dougherty, executive director of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, said that McPherson Square has improved significantly with the regular help of the Friends group.
She said the organization plans to bring new programs to the library branch at McPherson Square, such as GED-prep courses and programs for teens, while also investing in improvements to the park that surrounds the library.
“For the people who live around McPherson Square, this is a park to enjoy,” she said. “But it’s also a library. Some people living in this neighborhood didn’t even realize this was a functioning library.”
Actually, last weekend’s cleanup was just one aspect of big things to come at McPherson Square. To improve safety at the park, Dougherty said, the office of City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez (D-7th dist.) is going to have lights installed, and the Philadelphia police already have installed two security cameras at McPherson Square.
“There’s a lot going on,” Dougherty said with a grin.
She said the Friends group has been holding meetings with community groups, residents and city agencies since last September to identify ways to improve both the McPherson branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia and the entire park.
“We started meeting, and people said, ‘Kids programs? We need to clean the park and get the drug dealers out,’” Dougherty recalled.
As the park supporters look to better days, neighborhood children have claimed a corner of McPherson, in front of the library branch, as their own.
Tessa Renshaw, community outreach manager for the library’s Friends group, said she was surprised when she passed McPherson Square one recent evening and noticed that children had turned a small mulch-covered area into their own space.
“They created this small garden,” said Renshaw, as she helped some youngsters install a small fence around it.
“It’s like they are making the park their own,” she said.
As Renshaw spoke, some children worked the dirt as others painted a concrete perimeter.
“We wanted to make the park nicer,” said Michael Martinez, 9, who lives across from McPherson Square. ••
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.