Only 13 years ago Campbell Square was the place to go if you were looking to purchase marijuana or step on a broken syringe. Residents of Port Richmond referred to the public square as “Needle Park” and would not dare to let their children play there. For decades very few people knew the real name of the park, which was also called Nativity Park and Allegheny Square.
Now the park nestled at Allegheny Avenue and Belgrade Street is entirely green, filled with trees, flowers, freshly painted park benches and laughing children. The people responsible for the transformation are none other than the members of Friends of Campbell Square. The group formed in 1998 and set out to bring life back into the property and shake off its title by cleaning up the park and creating a place for friends and family to enjoy nature.
When FOCS’s secretary Susan Ongirski and her fellow neighbors realized that something needed to be done to fix “Needle Park” they decided to contact the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. Ongirski drafted a letter and was given in return a plan to save the park. They told her to form a Friends Group, which is a collaboration of citizens who value their local parks and work to preserve them. According to Ongirski, many Friends Groups were forming in Pennsylvania at the time. Although only five people showed at their first planning meeting, FOCS now has 15 active members.
The organization gets backing from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and support from Philadelphia Green, a program that focuses on neighborhoods and public spaces. FOCS also receives support from local businesses by sending out donation letters. People can sign on as sponsors at different levels and in return receive recognition at park events. “It is fantastic because that goes to next year’s events or anything else we need during the season,” says Ongirski.
The organization now holds monthly meetings at Our Lady Help of Christians, where members plan events, develop fund-raising plans and discuss federal funding. FOCS is currently working on a fund-raising plan to sell fresh fruit and vegetables in the park to promote healthy eating. Another plan in the works is a new garden, which will be made possible by the PHS’s Green Plant Grant.
The events are what make Campbell Square Park stand out in its community. Each month, FOCS holds at least one family-friendly event. The group hosts everything from Polish string bands and dancing to family movie nights. On Halloween children are invited to trick or treat in the park, which is fully equipped with a stage for them to model their costumes. “We even get dressed up,” says Ongirski’s mother and fellow FOCS member Mary Ongirski. “Oh, we have a blast, I’m telling you.”
During the holiday season, a Christmas tree lighting ceremony is held in the park along with a visit from Santa Claus. Among the tree decorations are ornaments that sport the names of the businesses that have donated to the organization.
While the events are a large component of the organization, what keeps Campbell Square Park a beloved community spot is the volunteer efforts and maintenance. FOCS hosts Gardening and Maintenance Mondays, where a group of volunteers meets for two hours and tends to the park. Anyone who is interested in gardening or pruning is invited to attend. The volunteer group does everything from picking up trash and painting benches to planting trees. Ongirski says that watering is one of the most important maintenance tasks because new trees are planted all year-round.
Throughout the rest of the week, neighbors and park guests look after the grounds. It is not uncommon to see a park visitor pick up empty water bottles and cigarette cartons and throw them away. Neighbors also keep watch for any crimes or issues occurring in the park. “Everyone looks out for everyone here,” says Ongirski.
All the hard work pays off each year when the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society holds its City Garden Contest. Each year Campbell Square Park enters the contest by submitting photographs of the gardens. Last year it took second place in the Community Parks category.
For Ongirski and her fellow FOCS members, the end result is more important than any award. Their efforts changed the space from a badland to a clean, functioning park that benefits its community. “The nicest thing that one person said was that ‘it was a total transformation of the park,’” says Ongirski. “It was a total turn around.” Ongirski makes time each week to visit the park to soak up the sun and observe the results of her labor. She can often be found relaxing under a tree with her dog Bandit, who is popular with the neighborhood children. “I could sit here for hours watching the kids play in the park,” she says. “That makes me feel great.”