Denise Clark, a Strawberry Mansion resident for more than 50 years, serves as the vice president of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation.
Clark helps guide the CDC to new heights while keeping the past in the present mind of Strawberry Mansion residents. Clark also ensures the growth of the community through her involvement with the Friends of East Park and formerly the Police Advisory Council.
You’ve lived here for 50 years now. Can you tell us about the changes you’ve seen in the community?
It has improved since the 50s. My family was only the fourth black family in the neighborhood. The park is getting better and we’re getting a discovery center built in it. The neighbors seem more friendly. I guess we’ve been neighbors for so long, they care about you. They look at you and they care about you.
What made you decide that you wanted to take on a community leadership role?
I was living here for so long and one guy asked me if I would want to be a community leader. I ran and I won. I wasn’t supposed to run. I was just running to see if I would win. That was in ’88 and I’ve been here ever since.
What is the overall mission of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Center?
The overall mission is to bring [different projects or organizations] to the neighborhood and to monitor it. The councilman sends everybody to us and we have to decide whether we want them or not – whether they’re good for this area or not. We also have Christmas parties for the kids and Strawberry Mansion Day for everybody.
What kind of decisions do you make as the vice president of CDC and the Judge of Elections for this area?
We all make them together. We have meetings all the time and decide whether we want different projects or organizations to come here.
I oversee all of the elections. Any problem that comes into our voting place, I have to handle. I see if people are allowed to vote [on what gets to come into the community].
As a member of the CDC, what are you most passionate about?
The people’s mindset. The people are not ready for the changes that are coming. I want to see the people change. I want to see them be compassionate and I want to see their attitudes change.
What is the most rewarding project you work on with the CDC?
Strawberry Mansion Day. We have entertainers. We have hot dogs and hamburgers and juice. There’s literature on the tables and there’s dancing. When you do something, you have to have music and food. Everything is free that day. They don’t have to spend any money.
You are also a member of Friends of East Park. Can you describe what differentiates SMCDC from Friends of East Park, and what you do there?
Well, Friends of East Park deals with everything going on in Fairmount Park and CDC deals with things more so around Strawberry Mansion.
At Friends of East Park, we do clean-ups all the way from Cecil B. Moore Avenue to the Oxford Street Bridge. As of now though, we need help in terms of setting up the clean-ups because there are only six to seven of us and there used to be 10.
You were a member of the Police Advisory Council. What was that like for you?
I had to let that go because I was in too many things. That entails telling them what’s going on in the community. But it was too demanding to turn in somebody. It was a positive but I got involved in other things.
How has Center City helped the CDC and Friends of East Park?
We have help from Councilman Darrell Clarke but that is on the surface. They haven’t really helped us with much of anything.
We have had meetings with all of the mayors throughout the years. They came in and talked with us. We gave them earfuls about with is going on in our community but nothing happened. I don’t know what [Mayor Jim] Kenney is going to do, but [Mayor Michael] Nutter didn’t do anything. We are basically on our own.
Can you comment on the housing development in the area?
Developers have to come to us and we have to give them the okay and there has to be an understanding of what we want and what they want. [The housing] mainly for newcomers, the pricing is not geared for this area. The people who live here simply cannot afford them, so they are for newcomers.
What would you like to see happen in the near future for the committee?
I would like to see us get a new space and we’re working on that. When we have meetings here, the place is jam packed.
What would you say is the crown jewel of Strawberry Mansion?
I would say Fairmount Park. When I first moved here, I didn’t know that we lived so close to the park. You can go across the street and be in another world.
Since being involved with Friends of East Park and having a passion for Fairmount Park, what would you say to others to want to be involved with the park?
If you all use the park, if you all play at the park, you should be involved with the park. Who do you think cleans up all the trash and leaves in the park? They should care. It’s here. It’s not going anywhere and you should all help make it better.
How would you say Strawberry Mansion has shaped you as a person?
It has made me a better person because I’ve lived here mostly all my life. I came out here when I was six. I like Strawberry Mansion. I can walk through the streets and see what they’ve done. I like feeling the togetherness and most everybody is friendly.
Strawberry Mansion’s slogan is “Preserving our Past… Investing in our Future.” What does that mean to you?
Our past, we are keeping that. We build on that. As a community, we couldn’t go forward without looking back. In order for us to grow, we’ve got to look back to go forward.
– Text and images by Carine Lavache, Stephanie Hirsch and Mariama Taifa-Seitu.