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Norris Square Park is getting a makeover. Let’s honor the park’s history by helping to take care of it. 

Hey, neighbors. Have you heard the news? Norris Square Park is getting a makeover. This is a good idea and seems to be well planned. I have been living in this community for 16 years, and a change of scenery like the park makeover will really be nice. Not only will it be a good change for me, but I’m sure my neighbors are looking forward to seeing it as well. It couldn’t come at a better time with all the new homes and neighbors. I’m sure they will be glad to have it too. 

Marvel, an architecture company, is overseeing the redesign. The new look will include a central gathering space, more seating, a renovated basketball court, and two new playground areas with more equipment for children ages 2-5 and 5-12. 

Norris Square Park is a cleaner park compared to others in the Kensington area. It serves a variety of residents and community needs. Neighborhood groups, such as the Norris Square Community Alliance and the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, organize events in the park like weekly farm stands, movie nights, theatrical performances, and workshops. I have personally attended some of the functions and was really surprised by how well everything was organized. Imagine how a function would be in the newly developed park. Nice, huh?

Noel Lopez, a Kensington resident, looks out at the newly designed and renovated basketball court at Norris Square Park on May 18, 2022. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

Hey, I don’t know about you, but I’m excited. I know the kids can’t wait for the new playground and the basketball players can’t wait to play on the new court. But I think the free Wi-Fi will be the biggest attraction. Philly Community Wireless has been installing free Wi-Fi in the neighborhood and you can access it in the park. Visitors will enjoy sitting in the shade and streaming shows or messaging their friends on social media thanks to the free internet access. But with all that, we must maintain a safe space for the kids, ballers, and adults who visit the park daily.

Will the redesigned park become another concern for the community because of the attention it will receive from old and new visitors? We as a community need to have rules in place so we can take care of where we live. As we welcome these improved changes, I ask my fellow community members to honor the park’s history and how far it has come by helping to take care of it.

“I’ve spent years cleaning these parks, making sure to keep drugs out,” said Noel Lopez, a Kensington resident of approximately 30 years. Lopez often goes for walks and plays his flute at Norris Square Park. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio, May 18, 2022. )

The history of Norris Square Park

West Kensington was formed in 1683 when William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, gave Issac Norris a parcel of large, undeveloped land. Norris was a prominent Quaker merchant in Philadelphia. In 1848, the Norris family heirs wanted some of the land to be a public green space and made it official in the plot’s deed. The 5.8-acre square was donated to the City by the family of Norris. It was to be used as a public green space forever. Thus, Norris Square Park was born. In 1854, the original park design was created by William Rush. The layout was based on Franklin Square, one of Philadelphia’s five original squares, which did not include Norris Square Park. This park’s creation coincided with the industrialization of the Kensington area, as the neighborhood was home to many factories, especially the textile industry.

Norris Square Park’s survival depended on the economic success of the industrial neighborhood. By the 1920s, mass-produced goods entered the U.S. market. Because these goods were priced cheaper, Kensington-area businesses struggled to compete. After the closing of the mills and factories in the late 20th century, the local economy and the park began to decline. The neighborhood struggled to survive the loss of job opportunities once widely available from the mills. By the 1970s, some residents left the neighborhood in search of work elsewhere. Migrants from the South as well as Puerto Rico began to move into the neighborhood due to the affordable housing. However, what felt like a fresh start didn’t go as expected. As the population in the neighborhood began to grow, there were less jobs available and the situation for residents worsened. 

Multiple studies have shown poverty and joblessness have been connected to drug and alcohol use. A study from 2017 in The International Journal of Drug Policy found that “economic recessions and unemployment increase psychological stress, which increases illegal drug use.” The Kensington area experienced this firsthand with heroin usage throughout the 1960s, prior to the emergence of “speed” in the 1970s, and then later crack cocaine in the 1980s. Norris Square Park was known as “Needle Park” (like how McPherson Square is called this now) because of the prevalent drug use at that time. But in the 1990s, the Norris Square Neighborhood Project collaborated with Philadelphia Green and Grupo Motivos and took the park back, transforming it into an award-winning park for the community again. The impact of the transformation has spread to the surrounding neighborhood, where there are multiple vibrant community gardens and murals. 

A community member walks through Norris Square Park during a sunny afternoon on May 18, 2022. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

‘If we all pitch in together, we can have Norris Square Park around for years to come.’

We can preserve green spaces like Norris Square Park by keeping them clean and respecting others in the park. As such places are disappearing due to rising development, lack of maintenance, and lack of funding, having a green space in our community is a commodity. 

I remember in my hometown of Baltimore when I was around 7 or 8, we had a playground in the neighborhood that almost all the kids in the community went to. One day, we heard news that the City had decided to close it down to make room for a street that would cut through the area where the playground was. We, as kids, were devastated and didn’t know what to do. In order to keep the playground, we started asking grown-ups what we could do. This was after a few demonstrations, as we called them, which really looked like mini riots had taken place. Almost all the grown-ups said the same thing, “Start a petition.” And that’s what we did. After a couple of months, we got word from the City. The playground was to remain open until further notice. I’m not sure if that playground is still open today, but I know it has been a long run. Just goes to show you how working together can get things done.  

In Norris Square Park, a group of neighbors voluntarily clean up debris once a month on Saturdays. Other times, different youth will volunteer their service by picking up trash or planting flowers around the entrances to the park. Even youth from around the neighborhood come out at times and lend a hand in keeping the park clean and attractive. This is all done with the leadership of Cathy Cuadrado who is a volunteer coordinator for the Norris Square Neighborhood Project. Hats off to Ms. Cuadrado.   

Green spaces like Norris Square Park are important. Parks provide a place for kids to go instead of the drug corners. Kids can learn how to share and make friends by playing together in the park. Things like that help structure a kid’s life.  Additionally, parks are where many people go to exercise, walk their dog, or to enjoy the evening shade. Parks are a refuge for everyone. I’m sure the people experiencing homelessness find it convenient to have a place to rest when needed. This is good for the community as long as people follow the loitering rules of the park. 

If we all pitch in, together, we can have Norris Square Park around for years to come. Let’s make sure kids don’t miss their curfew and loitering doesn’t increase. We don’t need drinking and drug use to become a problem and have another “Needle Park.” As residents of Kensington, we can keep Norris Square Park safe and clean by the big and little things we do. Make sure trash goes where it is supposed to. Dog walkers should be mindful of their dogs’ droppings. Respect each other and give consideration to the next person at all times. Join the Friends of Norris Square group and participate in regular cleanups or volunteer with another neighborhood organization for an event. But mainly, follow the guidelines and rules of the park. Be an example for the next person and the person after them. This could really work, but we all have to do our part.  

Norris Square Park has come a long way, and it is a blessing to have it the way it is now. With all it’s been through, it still serves our neighborhood. With help from the community, it can be that for some time to come. 

Editors: Siani Colón, Christopher Malo, Zari Tarazona / Designer: Siani Colón