Second life stirs at Catharine Park

Neighbors of the Graduate Hospital area spark new project — “Reimagining the Use of Outdoor Space: Interactive Mural Project.”

Nestled at 22nd and Catharine Streets, Catharine Park, a tiny lot of only 930 square feet, has sparked a three-phase series of renovations to the playground called, “Reimagining the Use of Outdoor Space: Interactive Mural Project.” The project will feature restoration, new murals and the installation of interactive digital learning technology. (Grace Maiorano/South Philly Review)

Catharine Park — a little isle of leisure — can nearly go unnoticed in the bustling South of South district.

Shadowed by a two-story building, the playground itself is predominantly composed of wall.

But a coalition is working to restore the 930 square-foot space, utilizing the incongruous wall as a canvas for not only art but also innovation.

Commonly referred to as a “pocket park,” the nestled space at 22nd and Catharine streets has been the site of a couple resurrections. In its latest life, the Friends of Catharine Park, Inc. has sparked a three-phase series of renovations called, “Reimagining the Use of Outdoor Space: Interactive Mural Project.”

The project encompasses restoration, new murals and the installation of interactive digital learning technology, respectively, for its targeted demographic, which includes kids from birth to preschool-age. Last week, the project was formally approved by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“The park caters to children ages zero though 5,” said Nia Fresnel, vice president of the FOCP. “But our spirit was really to activate it … what can we do to make this space a more active space for the community?”

Known as “The Little Park That Could,” Catharine Park doesn’t even have running water, yet it serves as wellspring of life in a neighborhood with limited green space.

Over the past year, the group, which was founded in 2013, began brainstorming ideas, as they’ve seen the park’s colossal “PLAY” fresco work, painted about six or so years ago, gradually become the victim of inclement weather, graffiti and children’s chalking.

The image, a creation by artist Kevin Broad, was a product of the first wave of Catharine reincarnation around 2007 when a group of Graduate Hospital residents fought to preserve the space, which at the time was a gated lot cluttered with overgrown weeds and broken benches. When a three-story building was projected for the site, neighbors, including

Chris Fanelli, president of Friends of Catharine Park, appealed to the city.

After the potential development was tabled, several members of the immediate area, including architect Sophie Robitaille, redesigned the park to reflect the shifting demographic of young professionals starting families.

“It’s always been a community-based project from the get go,” Fanelli said. “So, I don’t see how we could do this without the community being involved.”

This time around, the community’s voices will again be considered, as each of the three phases, which will tentatively take place over the next year or so, features a designated public portion.

In mid-June, a meeting was held at SOSNA headquarters to start gathering neighbors’ ideas. Much of the process is receiving input from various local organizations, schools and businesses that already use the park on a regular basis, including the Aspen Grove School, Mighty Writers and Matt Olesh of Chamberlain Hrdlicka law firm.

By the end of the summer, the FOCP hopes to solidify a few artist candidates’ work for the public to vote on for the actual mural itself. But, the mural, as Fresnel and Fanelli explained, will not be confined to paint, as they aim for it to correlate with potential technological features such as augmented or virtual reality activities.

“It’s more so the experience we want people to have,” Fresnel said. “So when we’re saying ‘interactive mural,’ we want the artists to think along those lines, too, so it may not be something they’ve done in the past. … We want it to be educational, we want it to be fun and we want it to blend with the neighborhood.”

Striving to satisfy all five senses, like incorporating textiles in the mural, the FOCP has also been reaching out to local tech juggernauts, such as Perelman School of Medicine’s virtual reality research lab and the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology.

Being a city of “Eds and Meds,” Fresnel says ‘why not start them young?’ as she envisions park-goers will play while learning fundamentals, like the alphabet, numbers, primary colors or even neighborhood history.

“We’ve been brainstorming, because we don’t have a final answer for what this is or can be,” Fresnel said. “But the options feel like they’re available … we can do something that’s new and draw people into the neighborhood and make them more interested — activate the space in a more dynamic way — it will help one, us, reimagine the use of outdoor space … and also thinking about where else this can happen in the community, in the broader community or the city.”

Currently, all monetary costs will be raised through fundraising and grants. The group says it’s already applying for various grants, including resources from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which recently approved the project for grant application submission.

Fundraisers, like purchasing engraved bricks, and other donation opportunities will be organized, as well. Sometime this week, the FOCP plans to schedule a “Technology Classes for Kids” fundraising event, as well as meeting with Councilman Kenyatta Johnson for additional resources.

FOCP is also seeking additional partnership with the local Baby Wordplay program, the Franklin Institute, the Free Library of Philadelphia and Mural Arts.

Phase 1 will cost up to $5,000, while phase 2 could cost up to $30,000. The totals of phase 3, which can be a parallel process with the first phase, are still tentative.

Although the board members say they have a long way to go, they hope the reimagined space will consistently transform as the community — and technology — inevitably change.

“I think, my greatest hope is that the space will always be used and loved and will continue to watch them grow as the park grows — to have the park sort of grow or evolve as technology evolves and the world,” Fanelli said. “It’s kind of exciting to think that this came from a gated intersection.”

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