South Philadelphia residents gathered at Mifflin Square Park on Saturday afternoon for free blood, glucose and other medical screenings with volunteers from Thomas Jefferson University.
But, the health-focused event expanded beyond vital signs.
The community spent the day celebrating ongoing efforts to improve the welfare of the Whitman park, as Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition Inc. received two grants totaling $70,000 from Sen. Larry Farnese and Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, made possible through the state Department of Community and Economic Development. SEAMAAC, a more than 30-year-old Philadelphia-based nonprofit working to empower immigrants, refugees and marginalized communities, plans to allocate $50,000 from Farnese’s office to its SoPhiE food truck, which features immigrant chefs.
Fielder’s additional $20,000 will be allotted toward physical improvements along the South 7th Street Commercial Corridor, the beautification at Mifflin Square Park and funding for neighborhood events and programs.
“We’re just very excited about (the funding), said Joel Arnold, community building and planning coordinator for SEAMAAC. “It helps us make sure that a lot of these things that we think are really important for the neighborhood can keep going and we can actually bring some improvements, some tangible improvements.”
The $70,000 in state funding is being allocated amidst Mifflin Square Park’s continual “Making Room for Everyone” master plan. Sparked by SEAMAAC in 2016, the mammoth project, which includes green infrastructure and sports facilities, is the product of feedback, insight and reflections from nearly 1,000 people around the community.
Along with an initial grant from the William Penn Foundation, the undertaking plans to receive the majority of its assets through Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild initiative, which is funded by the Philadelphia beverage tax. Total costs are projected up to $4 million, according to project stakeholders, and does not have a finalization date.
With history of racial violence in Mifflin Square, such as a shooting rampage that broke out among gangs in fall 2015, SEAMAAC decided it was especially crucial to consider the thoughts of local residents while drafting a concept design for the park.
“The park is a work in progress,” said Andy Toy, director of development and communications for SEAMAAC. “Our hope is that everybody can work together and get along and that we push out some of the negative behavior and uses in the park, so that everyone feels like they can come here and not feel issues around safety or cleanliness or that their kids shouldn’t play here.”
While Fiedler’s $20,000 funding will contribute to the overarching master plan, including new pavers for the plaza, Farnese’s $50,000 will help support operations of SEAMAAC’s SoPhiE (South Philly East) food truck, a community initiative striving to cultivate emerging local immigrant chefs while bringing neighbors together to break bread in Mifflin Square.
Vending outside of the park on Wednesdays, Fridays and occasional Saturdays, SoPhiE, which was established in 2018, has featured Burmese, Algerian, Mexican and Indonesian chefs since its inception.
Some of the culinary artists recently opened local businesses after successful runs with the truck.
“The SoPhiE food truck that we have here came out of this idea that the neighborhood here had a relatively rich tradition of vending, food sales,” Arnold said. “And the food truck has been a way to both bring people together through food and kind of activate the park, but also all of our chefs have been neighborhood residents seeking to – whether they want to start their own business or open up their own food truck…There’s just so much talent in the neighborhood that just needs an outlet. If you have these spaces, there’s a lot of potential that we try to help make sure there’s an avenue for that and support for that.”
Though the organization is a nonprofit, SEAMAAC leaders say SoPhiE is a relatively large expense, and through this new funding, ideally, they will break even on maintenance and other operational costs.
SEAMAAC stresses that the truck wasn’t established solely to make a profit but rather create a sense of civic engagement in Mifflin Square, using food as a way to encourage entrepreneurism and unify various demographics around cuisine.
“(The truck) is sort of a gateway to additional employment and really expanding some of the things that they are still working on in their personal lives,” Farnese said. “…It’s really exciting to see the public-private partnerships when they come together, and those state dollars are used for some incredible things.”
Cruising around the parameters of Mifflin Square, SoPhiE symbolizes the demographics, activities and experiences unfolding within the plaza.
Described as a cultural hub, diverse demographics of white, Asian, Hispanic, African-American and other populations pass through Mifflin Square everyday, as the Whitman park is one of the only green spaces in this part of South Philadelphia.
“I think we all know that this is – Mifflin Square Park – is such a valuable part of our community,” Fiedler said. “It really is the place where a lot of folks that live different lives, who may have different life experiences, have different cultures, different languages – this is a meeting point. This is where a lot of folks encounter other people. We have conversations.”