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Gorgas Park's Best Friend Dreams Big for Future

John Boyce talks about plans for Roxborough community hub.

John Boyce's enthusiasm for Gorgas Park is contagious. Walking Roxborough's community gathering place with the Friends of Gorgas Park president, you absorb his passion and find yourself picking up scattered paper, empty bottles and cigarette butts.

Pausing, you also take in the wonder. 

"Just look at this meadow! It's amazing, isn't it?" Boyce chirped.

For Boyce, both the short term and long term goals for Gorgas remain the same. Whether its picking up scattered trash, scheduling a summer concert series, or writing grants for better drainage, Boyce's goal is to make the park better everyday.

Though funds are hard to come by, Boyce and the Friends of Gorgas Park are dreaming big for 2012 and beyond.

Thematic Goals

A postman, Boyce daily delivered mail around the Gorgas Park area during the 1990s. With a degree in English, environmental conservation wasn't his strong suit, but just by observing the neglected park called outs its potential. Following World War II, the park had fallen into disrepair.

Boyce needed to get involved. Through the help of John and Sandy Yannatell, the Friends of Gorgas Park wrote grants, lobbied politicians, planned community events, planted trees and by the new millennium Gorgas returned to its former glory.

"This is the Roxborough-Manayunk commons. It's located in the center of the community," he said. About 10 volunteers consistently work with the Friends of Gorgas Park.

Thematically, Boyce divides the park's mission into four areas: "There's the past—the golden age. The decline. The resurgence. And the 21st century. How do we move forward?"

The park itself is a sprawling area. The part around Ridge Avenue is commonly known, but Gorgas extends over Pechin Street to the Roxborough High School stadium and tennis courts—all the way to Manayunk Avenue. 

Making it greener is a constant goal, and little by little every year the friends plant more trees and cut down dying or diseased ones.

"There's more and more opportunity out there to make the park greener."

Dreaming Big

A main park entrance is at Ridge and Hermitage streets. Boyce wants to unite that corner as a green spot. The Roxborough Library has plans to redo its exterior, and Boyce has worked to define the entry point with the pillars, boulders and plants present today. With Leverington Presbyterian Church green on one side and a tree outside Murphy's Roofing on the other, he said it's getting there.

Currently, Ridge Avenue is undergoing a streetscape project through Hermitage. Though Gorgas isn't included, Boyce wants to extend it. One idea: parking cutouts. Parking isn't easy at Gorgas, and Boyce thinks cutting the wide sidewalk in half (which people already illegally park on) would make it safer and more accessible. 

"We don't want a conventional streetscape," he said, mentioning he wants porous sidewalks and a new SEPTA overhang. 

Additionally, he envisions a rain garden and cisterns. He wants to divert the rainwater to produce a rain garden and capture the runoff more effectively.

Water is a big issue for Boyce. With Gorgas Park literally existing at Roxborough's famed "ridge," Boyce wants to work with the Philadelphia Water Department to better control storm water. He's intrigued by its current project on Venice Island, and thinks installing bowls and plateaus along Gorgas' hilly terrain would better trap the heavy rains.

"The water pours off this park—flooding the street and sidewalks, and polluting the river... We want to look into altering the terrain, and create little bowls—or bigger bowls—so the water goes into the ground before it hits the street," he said.

Like the rest of Roxborough and Manayunk, quality of life issues exist at the park. Problems include the homeless, graffiti, garbage, drug use and loiters up to no good. The park heads that off by working individually.

"All of the Friends of Gorgas Park always pick up trash. It's a public space, and there a lot of people who don't care. And if you can't take care of fundamental things and keep it clean and safe, you are not going to attract people," he said.

Though the park works with the city, Gorgas often cleans up graffiti itself.

Friends of the Friends

The hard work of the Friends of Gorgas Park includes getting larger entities to back it. The original grants came from Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Parks Revitalization. Working with Fairmont Park, former and current councilmembers Michael Nutter and Curtis Jones, Jr., and former state representative Kathy Manderino, the park grew.

"When you do major capital—putting in a new gazebo, the sign, playground, restoring the war memorial—site improvements are not us. But the fact that the residents love the park give us the political leverage we need to get the money, and (politicians) know how important it is," Boyce said.

This summer, Boyce wants to raise $30,000 for an endowment fund to maintain sustainability. Through a fair this summer, the friends will invite all community stakeholders to the table in the hopes of continuing fundraising. He can't speak highly enough of the sponsorship from East River Bank, which funds a lot of the summer programming. The park wants to extend its reach.

In the park's clubhouse, Boyce points to the website, lawn maintenance, promotions—nearly every knickknack in the office as a token of someone's time devoted to Gorgas. "I can't come close to taking credit. This is a community park, in every aspect," he said.

Though all goals may not get accomplished, Boyce thinks dreaming big is the only way to do business.

"It's nice that people think of us as a model park, but it's never enough. You always want to improve," Boyce said. He quoted parks commissioner and former recreation commissioner Michael DiBerardinis with giving the park its work ethic.

"If you're not moving forward, you're losing ground," he said. 

For more information, visit the park's website.

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