Benjamin Hawkins sat in Vernon Park eating a chocolate cupcake he was given by the Vernon Park cleanup crew. Upon finishing the snack, Hawkins quickly tossed its crinkled wax wrapper to the ground.
“Oh, my god, what did I just do?” Hawkins said. Just as quickly as it left his hands, Hawkins picked the wrapper back up and headed straight to the trash can.
A few months ago, Hawkins said he wouldn’t have thought twice about tossing his trash to the park’s grass. Now, he finds himself running to one of the nearby trash cans with not just his own litter but abandoned litter fallen from the hands of others too.
Since June, the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership has been coming to Vernon Park at 5818 Germantown Ave. every other Wednesday to help clean up the park. While the watershed members are there, numerous local residents join in on the efforts.
“They’re getting involved and they’re taking ownership. They’re spending time, learning and they want to help out, and you can really see that,” said Lesley Saliga, an AmeriCorps VISTA community liaison who is heading the watershed project.
The biweekly cleanup was originally started with a mission to help enhance Philadelphia’s water quality.
“Anything that happens on the land is affecting the water quality, and anything that goes down the drain is affecting the water quality,” Saliga said, a leader of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Watershed Partnership, known for facilitating community outreach education and storm water management and partnered with 25 different organizations for the Vernon Park project.
Before the endeavor got started, Saliga said the park was in awful condition. “The tree branches were so low you couldn’t even see through the park or make view of the Vernon House,” Saliga said, referring to the large white building with cerulean blue shutters, known as the Whister House, that stands prominently towards the back edge of the park.
After hours spent pruning and picking up trash, the park looks cleaner than ever. “We want to make Vernon Park the Central Park of Philadelphia,” said Stephen Kinsey, chief of staff for State Rep. John Myers. Kinsey has been volunteering on and off to help clean up the park.
While the TTF Waterhshed Partnership is also working on building a rain garden and several flower gardens, it’s not just the physical aspects of the park that the project is elevating. It’s also helping to educate and increase the awareness of the locals who utilize the park the most.
“Seeing this as a place to do more than sit on a bench and get drunk is great,” said Stephanie Clymer, an AmeriCorps Vista community liaison working on the project. “Having the park nice looking builds morale, so it can help even in small ways.”
Vernon Park has been the site of numerous robberies and other criminal activities. On most Wednesdays that the cleanup is held, the Philadelphia Police Department comes out to make sure a safe environment is maintained.
“I definitely wouldn’t come here at night,” Clymer said. “You can see the kinds of trash we pick up here reflects what goes on at night. But during the day, the program definitely brings a lot of people here and can make it safer.”
Hawkins, who comes to the park every morning at seven to hang out, said the park certainly isn’t the safest environment. “You have young people down here at night waiting to rob the elderly people. You gotta carry this all the time,” he said, pointing to the miniature can of mace strapped to a black wristband around his arm.
Many of the local residents who volunteer said that it’s hard to keep the park clean.
“The young kids nor old ones either, they don’t care about this park,” Hawkins said. “I mean, I don’t have to be here, but I don’t want to sit around in filth.”
Michael Harper, who lives a few blocks away on Rittenhouse Street and volunteers nearly every time the cleanup crew comes, said he blames the younger ones for most of the litter in the park. “I’ll be sitting here drink my beer, chillin’. The young ones, they’ll be drinking one, and the trash can will be right there, and they’ll just toss it over their shoulder,” Harper said. “They’re lazy.”
Harper said it takes a lot to get the teenagers who use the park to help clean up. “I got like 50 nephews out here today, and they ain’t gonna clean up anything,” he said. “You buy them a blunt, and they’ll clean up. That’s it. No other way.”
However, for many, Harper included, the watershed project is motivating residents to start taking action and stop littering. “There was so much trash back here before, you wouldn’t believe it,” Harper said. “You’d sit on the bus stop, look back, and it looks like crap. It’ll be trashed in a couple days, but we’ve got to keep it nice. It could be your mom sitting on that bus stop.”
For Kevin McGowan, originally from the countryside of Wyoming, Vernon Park serves as one of the few nice places in the Germantown area. “It’s nice to see someone take an initiative and clean this up,” McGowan said. “There’s not too many clean places around. This whole place stinks, and this is one of the places that seems clean, and with the trees, it’s a place you can breathe a little better,” said the former hunter and fisherman.
After recently getting out of a three-year jail sentence for theft, McGowan comes to the park nearly every morning to meditate. “For a guy like me, I’m 55 years old, and it’s kind of hard to start over, but I’m trying. It’s nice coming down here especially on weekends when no one’s here. It’s like a bit of a country atmosphere. You can just sit here and think and read a book,” McGowan said.
He said that without the cleanup crew, the park probably wouldn’t be able to give him as much peace of mind as it does. “They’re trying,” McGowan said. “There’s a lot of hurting people in the area. I think a lot of people are ignorant. They have no moral upbringing, so the place would get trashed.”
However, for many of the residents, a few minutes watching the watershed crew and other volunteers get to work is all the motivation they need. “It’s really fun to get to know the locals. A lot of them just jump in when they see us,” Clymer said.
The park was chosen because it was evident there was tons of room for improvement. When Saliga of AmeriCorps first first visited the site, she said she could feel a sense of negative energy and sadness in the area. However, the cleanup project has helped to turn the atmosphere around.
“It’s been a real joy being out here, and it’s been a collaborative process. You see more and more folks from the community putting trash in the trash cans instead of right next to them,” Saliga said. “We want to have a positive presence, and it’s happening.”