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A Park and Its People
It’s impossible to talk about Jewish Philadelphia in the first half of the 20th century without including the Strawberry Mansion and Parkside neighborhoods. And that is exactly what Kathryn Ott Lovell wants.
Lovell is the executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, a nonprofit organization created in 1997 to help preserve and improve the park’s system, which, at roughly 9,800 acres, is the largest urban park in the United States. As part of the conservancy’s mission for what she calls “Philadelphia’s single greatest cultural asset,” Lovell has spearheaded an effort to highlight the integral role the park played in the Jewish community’s past as a way to get people involved in the park’s current and future well being.
To that end, the conservancy has created a program called “Conserving/History: Fairmount Park and the Jewish Community in Philadelphia.”
“From both a cultural and a historical perspective, the Jewish population is a very important constituency,” Lovell explains. The program is a way for the conservancy “to answer the question of how we help the Jewish community become connected again to this amazing resource,” which accounts for some 11 percent of all the land in Philadelphia.
“Conserving/History” was launched with a monograph, “It Really Opened up Our Lives”: Fairmount Park and the Jews of Philadelphia 1920-1960, by former longtime Philadelphia Daily News writer Carol Towarnicky, along with a trolley tour of the Parkside and Strawberry Mansion neighborhoods, where an estimated 30,000 Jewish Philadelphians lived during that period. Towarnicky’s work, which also serves as the basis for the trolley tour, is a well-researched snapshot of what life was like for the Jews who made the then-upward move from areas like South Philadelphia to communities where their doors opened onto Fairmount Park and the Schuylkill River was their neighborhood boundary.
The six synagogues in the area, like Strawberry Mansion’s Beth Israel and B’nai Jeshurun and Parkside’s Har Zion and Beth David, would have picnics in the park and sponsor baseball teams. All the neighborhood synagogues long ago either moved, merged elsewhere or closed.
The 31st Street retail corridor offered everything from kosher butchers to clothiers. Places like Pflaumer’s and Cherry’s dipped some of the city’s best ice cream. Woodside Park, Smith Playground and the original Robin Hood Dell all provided entertainment within the park, and all were accessible by the ubiquitous trolleys.
“I got the sense that for the Jews of the past who lived in the city’s densely populated areas, the park was a central part of their lives,” Towarnicky says. “Everybody would spill out onto the park like it was their front yard. It seems hard to imagine when you go to these neighborhoods now; there’s almost no trace left of what must have been an amazing place.” Today, Strawberry Mansion is a lower-income neighborhood that retains the bones but not the makeup of its heyday, while Parkside, also lower income, is faring better these days: It is currently the object of desire for real estate speculators and developers intent on finding the next trendy Philadelphia ZIP code.
The inaugural “Conserving/History” trolley tour, held June 19 for a group of journalists and conservancy partners, also linked Jewish philanthropists past and present. Sam Katz, the founder and executive producer of Making History Productions and a major supporter of the conservancy, kicked off the tour at the Mann Center, named for Fredric R. “Freddy” Mann. Mann, who made his fortune manufacturing cardboard, was the park’s champion for much of the 20th century. He fought to save the Robin Hood Dell, was the first director of the city’s recreation department and served as the president of the Fairmount Park Commission, a city agency that was folded into the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation in 2010, among other civic works.
“I know something about the Jewish character of neighborhoods,” says Katz, who grew up in Wynnefield and played basketball on its courts. He said he agreed to lead the tour because he believes in the conservancy’s approach to targeted outreach. “The conservancy is trying to do what all organizations are trying to do now — taking advantage of their ability to target their market. By connecting with people, by telling their stories and connecting them to Fairmount Park, they are doing it productively. It’s a great program.”
It is certainly an ambitious one. The trolley tour crisscrossed the park as Katz pointed out landmarks like Strawberry Mansion, Belmont Mansion and the Plateau that still exist. But the only visible reminder of the neighborhood’s Jewish past was faded ornamentation on the facades of B’nai Jeshurun and Beth Israel, both now serving as churches. Even the trolley used for the tour is no more than a nod to the past; the original park-wide trolley lines were ripped out more than five decades earlier, when the service was discontinued in favor of buses.
Lovell doesn’t gloss over the loss. “It’s heartbreaking — the physical manifestations of those memories don’t exist anymore,” she acknowledges. “There are still places like Smith Playground, Strawberry Mansion and the reservoir, but the 31st Street corridor is long gone.”
She says that getting people to see the park and what it still means to the current residents of Parkside and Strawberry Mansion, as well as to its countless visitors, is a key part of ensuring that both the park’s historical legacy and its future are preserved. To do that, the conservancy will have to raise funds to expand its operating budget, which currently falls just below $1 million per year (with special projects requiring an additional $1 million to $2 million per year). Upcoming outreach plans to the Jewish community will include fundraising efforts as well as focus groups and themed events in the park.
“We want to reconnect them to the park, to that history and that culture and, ultimately, to become supporters of the park, whether it’s financially, on a volunteer basis or through projects that will get people more involved and engaged. Our mission is not just to bring parks back to life through capital projects — it’s to bring people back to parks.” l
For information about arranging a “Conserving/History” trolley tour or to order Carol Towarnickys’ monograph, call 215-988-9334 or email email@example.com.