Overbrook: Evan Cantiello Restarts Friends of Morris Park

Morris Park has been a staple in the Overbrook community since it was donated to the city by Wistar Morris in 1891. Since its grand opening in 1913, the 147-acre park has provided open green spaces, miles of walking trails, and numerous activities and events for public use and entertainment. The park stretches from the corner of 66th Street and City Avenue, and runs down to 68th Street and Lansdowne Avenue to Papa Playground. The area is maintained by Friends of Morris Park (FoMP), a community organization consisting of local volunteers who are dedicated to improving the beauty and health of their neighborhood.

Evan Cantiello, 36, has been involved in his community for most of his life as a volunteer for park cleanups and for Habitat for Humanity, as well as professionally working for nonprofits based in Philadelphia and across the country. The Connecticut-native moved to Philadelphia in 2003 and graduated from Temple and Eastern universities. He and his wife, Hillary, have been active members in the Overbrook community since they moved there in 2011, even bringing their two daughters to monthly park cleanups with rakes and shovels in hand.

The Indian Creek flows through most of Morris Park, one branch flowing from the west and the other flowing from the north. It’s an essential source of water for the local environment, carrying water from the suburbs, through the city, and into the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.

Cantiello has been president of Friends of Morris Park since he reactivated the nonprofit’s 501(c)(3) status in 2018 and has been working to maintain and improve the area to be more accessible to local residents.

What makes Overbrook a great place to live?

My wife and I were looking for a house to buy, we were getting married, and our top things were green [spaces], lots of trees, walkable neighborhood, and on the West side. I had bounced all over Philadelphia; I lived in Germantown, North Philly, South Philly; and liked West the best.

What difficulties did you encounter when restarting Friends of Morris Park?

So, Dan Gaeswki and his brother started it 20 years ago and they did some amazing things. They built 5 miles of continuous trails throughout the park, even hauling out a burned-out car. But that organization fell off for a little bit, so I was able to step in and reengage and say, “Hey, let’s get together again.” So, I recruited some board members and reactivated our 501(c)(3)  status, which allowed us to receive donations. We also have a regular calendar of events getting Drexel, St. Joe’s, and Villanova to come out and haul trash, pull invasive species, and generally clean up the area.

What role does Morris Park play in the Overbrook community?

It’s got some really interesting history to it. It’s got one of the only original guard houses that currently exist on 66th and Sherwood. There also used to be a quarry there, so all the houses in the neighborhood that are made of gray stone came from Morris Park. It also has one of the only natural springs in Philadelphia. It’s informally called the Bayard Rustin spring, who was a lesser-known Civil Rights leader that worked with Martin Luther King.

These guideposts have been set up throughout Morris Park to help newcomers navigate the terrain. Main entrances to the park are located along 66th and 68th streets, as well as on City Avenue, Sherwood Road and Papa Playground.

What kind of impact does the park have on the local environment?

Yeah, it’s one of the biggest tree canopies in Philadelphia. So, it’s super important in terms of climate change. It helps cool part of the city down. Indian Creek flows through it so it is also an important part of the water that moves through Philadelphia. Green space has also been super important over the last year and a half. Through the pandemic it’s been more highly utilized with people in quarantine. So that green space is critical for people to get out and move around, take care of their physical health, but we also know it has a very positive impact on mental health as well.

What are your goals as president of Friends of Morris Park?

Our goal is to increase the accessibility of the park, so that’s making it easier for people with mobility issues or for folks that may not be familiar with the park. We also work to maintain the trails, keep the park clean, and improve the native flora and fauna. Not just for visual appeal but for the health of the other plants, it also attracts deer as well as bees.

What challenges do you and Friends of Morris Park encounter?

Illegal dumping is huge, there are a couple pockets where neighbors have been doing everything they can for years to try and deter it; from calling 4-1-1, to calling the police. Illegal dumping is hard to deter without big infrastructure changes and for whatever reason Morris Park doesn’t get a lot of that attention, which is a shame because it is one of the best hidden gems in Philadelphia.