The days are gone when visitors to Goldstar Park had to tread lightly across the grass.
The public park on the 600 block of Wharton Street, like much of the neighborhood surrounding it, is undergoing a rebirth with the help of some concerned neighbors.
Goldstar once was a haven for drug dealers and vandals — its grass so littered with broken glass and animal waste that visitors were confined to the concrete pathways. Today, it is a winter wonderland of sorts, illuminated for the holidays with strands of lights.
The revitalization is largely due to the recently formed Friends of Goldstar Park, which has used grants from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the city’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, local politicians and the ubiquitous Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods to fund cleanups and other community initiatives, like movie nights and live entertainment.
"We’ve tried to use the money to build community around the park, to get people into the park to see the improvements," said Aileen Bunch, the co-chair of the friends group, who lives adjacent to the plot on the 1200 block of Marshall Street.
Members of the community, along with state Sen. Vince Fumo and First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, visited Goldstar on Friday for a tree-lighting ceremony.
The history of Goldstar Park dates back to the 1950s. Prior to the Department of Recreation transforming it into a public space, it was the site of the John Hay School. A fire destroyed the building and it was torn down, clearing land for the park.
It gets its name from the American Goldstar Mothers, an organization of women who have lost a child during a U.S. military conflict. Old photographs Bunch has found of Goldstar show a well-kept park, resplendent with manicured grass, bocce courts, benches, tables, basketball courts and playground equipment.
All that remains of the old park today are the swing set and an asphalt patch where the basketball court once was.
Goldstar’s rebirth began in the late 1990s, Bunch said, when neighbors across the street successfully petitioned DiCicco and the Recreation Department to spend some money on the land. By 2000, Bunch and another neighbor, Sarah Waters, were organizing cleanups in Goldstar. The friends group officially formed in the summer of 2002.
Bunch, her husband, Theodore, and their 6-year-old daughter Evelyn moved to the neighborhood in January 2000. They had lived in Bella Vista, but upon looking for a larger home, found themselves, like many others, priced out of the neighborhood.
Since they moved to the section south of Washington Avenue, others have joined them.
"I really like the fact that we have a lot of new neighbors who are invested in the park and are excited to be in the neighborhood," Bunch said.
The improvements to Goldstar are emblematic of a renewed sense of community pride among Bunch’s neighbors. Aside from the friends group, residents also recently founded Passyunk Square Neighbors.
Susan Montella, Geoff DiMasi and others originally joined forces to fight two nuisance bars, one at Ninth and Washington and the other on the 1100 block of South Eighth Street. Both have been linked with shootings and other violent attacks, according to Montella.
As they discussed solutions to that problem, Montella said, the residents learned they had other common concerns, like cleaning up the trash on Washington Avenue and planting trees and shrubbery. Their new civic association covers the blocks between Sixth and Broad streets from Washington Avenue to Tasker Street.
Montella has lived on the 800 block of Alter Street for six years. She was born in Southwest Philly, and said her family was among the thousands who fled that section of the city for the suburbs. She lived most of her life outside the city — and at one point even raised sheep in Chester County.
Montella returned to Philadelphia largely because she worked here, but also because of the convenience and culture of city life, she said. That’s how she found the Passyunk Square area.
She fondly calls her block "a little United Nations."
"You can walk out your front door on Eighth Street and you can hear people speaking in Cambodian, Chinese, Spanish, Italian," Montella said. "You have all the culture they bring with them."
At the same time, there has been an infusion of civic-minded young people into the neighborhood — many, like the Bunches, who seek safe, affordable alternatives to trendy areas like Bella Vista and Queen Village. They have been particularly active in the Passyunk Square Neighbors Association.
"And they are not timid like older folks are," Montella said.
It might not be long before Passyunk Square is one of the city’s hip, high-priced neighborhoods.
Montella notes that just across Washington Avenue, new homes are selling for as much as $500,000. Also, as more people move south, housing prices continue to rise. And Passyunk Square’s boundaries overlap with the Jefferson Square project, which includes a few dozen homes that will be sold at market-rate prices of $175,000 and $250,000.