For nearly a century, a monument to the soldiers of Northern Liberties who died in World War I has stood at the corner of the neighborhood, at 2nd and Spring Garden streets.
But as so often happens, Madison Memorial Park, the park with this statue of a “doughboy” – as U.S. Army soldiers and Marines in World War I were commonly known – has gradually slipped from being a pleasant memorial and park towards being just an eyesore.
“For a very long time, it was one of the symbols of the neighborhood. It was something that people knew about,” said Janet Finegar, a Northern Liberties resident and co-chair of Liberty Lands Park. “At this moment, what it doesn’t have is a friend.”
The park is currently filled with high weeds and strewn with garbage.
Although the entire park was expanded and remodeled with a grant from the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation’s “Take Me to the River” campaign just a few years ago, there is currently no individual or organization who takes care of the park, and it has fallen into disarray.
“It’s abandoned, my doughboy,” said Mary Dankanis, 76, the former director of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association.
Dankanis personally kept up the area around the statue for years. She also fought to return the statue to the neighborhood in the 1970s after it was moved to a different neighborhood.
The monument, created by John Paulding, is known as “Over the Top.” It is adorned with a plaque that states: “In memory of our boys of the Sixth, Eleventh and Twelfth Wards who served in the Great War of nations, 1914-18.”
These veterans all came from the area between Front and Sixth streets and Spring Garden Street and Girard Avenue.
“Even if people don’t have a personal connection to it, I think people know it’s there and feel that it’s ‘our doughboy,’” Finegar said. “It just doesn’t really have somebody who is able to take care of it on a regular basis.”
The doughboy monument was built in 1920 with donations from the residents of Northern Liberties.
“People went door to door to collect contributions to pay for the statue,” Dankanis said. “It was paid for by the ordinary people in the neighborhood.”
The statue was originally sited at 5th and Spring Garden streets until 1975, when the expansion of 5th Street led the city to relocate the statue to 17th and Spring Garden streets. Neighbors felt like their heritage had been stolen, Dankanis recalled.
“My old friend, Clara Braun, sat on the statue and wouldn’t let them move it. She tried to stop them,” Dankanis said. “‘Let’s get the doughboy back’ became a rallying cry for the neighborhood.”
Dankanis, who had moved to Northern Liberties with her husband in 1960 and refused to leave during widespread ‘white flight,’ became deeply involved with fighting for the memorial. While she never knew any World War I veterans, she just felt that the statue was a testament to Northern Liberties.
“I’m just committed to the neighborhood. I love this neighborhood,” Dankanis said.
After several years of lobbying by Dankanis and neighbors, the city’s Office of Housing and Urban Development kicked in $5,000 to move the statue back. Dankanis got approval from the Art Commission, and the statue was returned in July of 1981.
That same night, the neighborhood came together for a celebration under the doughboy, Dankanis said. Weeks later, a re-dedication ceremony was held, with a parade down 2nd Street and the same singer who performed “God Bless America” at the doughboy’s original dedication in 1920 returning to perform the same song again.
When the doughboy was re-dedicated, the members of the NLNA made a commitment together – “That we would never abandon our doughboy,” Dankanis said.
“The NLNA did all this – and now all of a sudden nobody cares anymore,” she said.
While Dankanis tended the doughboy’s park and kept it clean for years, she is no longer able to perform that work regularly. The Penn Herb Company, formerly located on 2nd Street, used to tend to the park, but recently closed its store. A neighbor took over Dankanis’s duties, but then moved out of the neighborhood.
ldquo;Our only challenge is to keep it clean, which is not easy,” said Larry Freedman, chair of the NLNA’s zoning committee. “It’s on our radar … it needs to be more on our radar.”
Originally with 1,200 names listed, one of the three plaques with veterans’ names was stolen off the monument back when the statue was located at 5th and Spring Garden streets. The statue also lost its bayonet at some point.
Over the years, Dankanis has heard from preservationists seeking aid in finding the missing names so they can replace the plaque and refurbish the statue, as well as from people whose relatives are memorialized on the monument.
“I think people care about it,” Dankanis said. “I hope things get better.”