Posted September 30, 2016
  • Community members fill an empty lot along Viola Street with warmth and pride; photo Ben Bryant

  • Historic photos of the neighborhood and Centennial Park were displayed to share neighborhood history; photo Ben Bryant

  • Bartram's Garden's farm stand sold an array of fresh and interesting fruits and vegetables in the alley; photo Ben Bryant

  • Community artwork brightened the alley walls; photo Ben Bryant

  • The Imagination Station art tables paired local artists with visitors of all ages; photo Ben Bryant

  • Neighborhood stories were on view in the storytelling tent; photo Ben Bryant

  • A drill team proceeded through the alley into the lot, drawing big crowds; photo Ben Bryant

  • An energetic African band and dance performance entertained the crowd; photo Ben Bryant

Viola Alley Connector Demonstrates Strength of Civic Commons Partnerships

For a bright afternoon in September, an alley in Philadelphia’s East Parkside neighborhood became much more than a narrow passageway; it was transformed into a lively gathering space for learning, celebrating, and meeting new neighbors. Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative partners Viola Streets Residents Association (VSRA) and the Centennial Parkside CDC banded together—along with partners from across the city—to plan an afternoon festival that celebrated the history of Viola Street and the East Parkside neighborhood, and the heritage of its residents.

VSRA and the CDC are involved in Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) due to the future development of the Centennial Commons, the plan to build new amenities along the Parkside edge of West Fairmount Park, which is adjacent to their community. The park, as well as four other sites throughout Philadelphia, were united when the Fairmount Park Conservancy received a grant from The Knight Foundation to make Philadelphia the pilot location of its Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative. The grant is based on the notion that civic assets, such as parks, provide an integral part of the nation’s cities and neighborhoods, and are needed as community gathering spaces. Site management has historically taken place in isolation with each site driven by unique resources and contexts. How could these assets be strengthened if these skills were shared, and groups were able to collaborate? How could celebrating these assets more broadly encourage new and diverse groups visiting and appreciating sites across the city? These are the core questions behind the project.

In order to test these questions, and to get a head start on drawing interest to the sites, all of which are undergoing phased reconstruction, the Knight Foundation started the Innovation Fund. Projects supported by the Innovation Fund are intended to be low-cost prototypes that explore innovative ideas while cultivating new organizational leadership and community connections. The projects are meant to test ideas, see what works and what doesn’t, and encourage collaboration between the partners.

The Viola Alley Connector began as a vision of the VSRA, and was refined by working with other RCC partners during a June 2016 workshop. What emerged was a plan to make physical and community connection between Viola Street and West Fairmount Park by locating several creative placemaking gestures within the underutilized alley. The project tested the idea of programming an alley and an adjacent empty lot as a venue to tell the story of the historic neighborhood, its residents, architectural history, and provide space for music, food, and community festivities. The vision was realized on September 24, 2016.

The project was led by the Centennial Parkside CDC together with VSRA. Civic Commons partners involved included Bartram’s Garden, whose staff brought a farm stand to the alley and demonstrated farming techniques in the Viola Street Community Garden; the Free Library of Philadelphia, whose representatives shared information and led a demonstration of African cooking techniques through its Culinary Literacy Center; the Fairmount Park Conservancy, who brought information about the Centennial Commons, and contributed tables and chairs and other resources to the event. In addition, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society (PHS) created beautiful flower pot displays, in custom metal planters made by Metal Incorporated, and Reading Terminal Market gauged resident interest for a potential subsidized CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for East Parkside residents. Parkside resident artists and videographers set up activity booths along the alley, which celebrated the history and character of the neighborhood. The event was topped off by performances by a local drill team, gospel singers, and an African dance ensemble. The Street Food Philly food truck was present to provide free food to all visitors, and encouraged guests to linger and greet one another and stay for the entertainment. Even the Philly Teepee was pitched, providing a welcoming space for neighbors to relax and engage with one another. PennPraxis provided planning, logistical, and physical design support. 

Most in attendance were Viola Street and Parkside residents, with about a third of visitors came from other Philadelphia neighborhoods. Those interviewed were very positive about the experience and enjoyed meeting new neighbors and learning about the neighborhood. Additional events and programming will be planned in the alley in the future.