Strawberry Mansion: Residents Meet to Reimagine Mander Playground and Recreation Center

Since its construction in 1961, Joseph E. Mander Playground and Recreation Center has remained one of the few public green spaces in the Strawberry Mansion community.

Located at 2140 N. 33rd St., it serves as the neighborhood’s gateway into Fairmount Park, which residents often refer to as the neighborhood’s “backyard.”

With the park’s importance to the community in mind, about 60 neighbors from Strawberry Mansion gathered at the recreation center on Monday, Feb. 11 for an unveiling of a reconceptualization of Mander.

The park is one of 60 sites on a preliminary list of public spaces set to receive first round investment from Rebuild Philadelphia, the city’s $500 million plan to improve local parks, libraries and playgrounds, according to the Fairmount Park Conservancy (FPC).

The goal has been to create an official conceptual master plan to share with potential investors.

“[Mander] is very heavily utilized and we just want to make sure we’re bringing people here and that, most importantly, the center suits our needs,” said Tonetta Graham, director of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation (SMCDC). “Right now, it’s just not serving the needs of the neighborhood. We can hardly have programming because we’re limited in space.”

The meeting was the third and final event of the Strawberry Mansion Reimagines Mander series, which started in October and has been a collaboration between the FPC, an organization that supports the city’s parks, and the SMCDC.

Both organizations have actively sought to keep neighborhood residents involved and engaged in the conversation about re-imagining the space, Graham said.

“I’m impressed by folks, we didn’t have to press the issue of them getting involved at all,” Graham said. “People have really taken into consideration how they use the space and how they want their children or their grandchildren to use the space.”

This re-conceptualization project began in May of last year. Heavily based on community input from the first two meetings, the plan includes an expanded recreation center with more meeting space, water fountains and a kitchen. The larger park area will feature a picnic grove, a garden walk, a flexible sports field and an amphitheater that could accommodate thousands of people, among other amenities.

In a presentation, members of the FPC and Sara Zewde, head of Zewde Studios, one of the design companies behind illustrating the plan, revealed the vision of the new park and play area with an architectural plan and invited additional feedback. It included aerial and now-and-after views of the playground to highlight the proposed changes. The team also provided virtual reality headsets so residents could experience being in the reimagined park.

In previous discussions, residents raised concerns about safety and visibility in the area and the lack of adequate bathrooms. The new concept prioritizes a plan for lighting along all major paths and spaces, as well as additional bathroom facilities.

Adela Park, special projects coordinator for the FPC, said the concept also draws inspiration from The New Fairmount Park Plan, a 2013 idea from multiple local organizations including Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation (PPR) to improve accessibility and legibility in East and West Fairmount Park.

One of the civic recommendations from that plan was creating better access into East Fairmount Park from Mander.

“This park is an incredible asset to this neighborhood,” Park said. “One of the things we’ve heard again and again at each event is how many memories people have playing here as kids, how they grew up coming to the park. It’s very well-loved and it’s a really special place.”

A button-making station at the meeting included “I love Mander” images and vintage black and white photos of children playing on Mander playground from the PPR archive.

Eric Scott, 53, said a photo of kids sitting on a playground climber was a familiar scene. Born and raised in Strawberry Mansion, he has fond early memories of playing on the baseball diamond and going to the recreation center to run around the reservoir during gym class.

While Scott said he’s seen the neighborhood change significantly over the last few decades, and not always for the better, the recreation center hasn’t evolved with the times.

I want to see this recreation center be torn down and a more modern one be put up,” he said. “Seeing something modern and catching up with the times with architecture would be really fantastic.”

In recent years, Scott has only come to the recreation center because it is the ward’s polling center. He said he’s excited about the possibilities a renovated center could bring to the space.

“It is really nice to see that investment is being made in the community right now and that’s one of the reasons why I came out,” he said.

Additional photo credits:
– Children playing in the junior play area of Mander Playground, Aug. 30, 1961 courtesy of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Archive.
– Design for the park’s Memorial Grove courtesy of Studio Zewde.
– Images (created by Studio Zewde) of the redesigned layout were included in a booklet provided to meeting attendees.

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