Building Urban Opportunity upon an Unlikely Oasis
Engaging Youth in Reimagining an Urban Community
By Kristin M. Szwajkowski, AICP
Not far north of the City Beautiful-inspired Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a little to the east of the magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art perched atop 'Fair Mount' and just outside the northern boundaries of bustling Center City, lies the once sleepy and nearly-forgotten little neighborhood of Francisville. The surprisingly unfamiliar treasure holds a unique and little known distinction in the city's history as the site of William Penn's seventeenth century vineyards. The grape growing failed but Penn's industrious spirit and vision for a 'greene countrie towne' lives on through a group of dedicated Francisville residents. Today, the 5,000-resident neighborhood is aiming to put itself on the map by transcending its less than one-half square mile boundary to achieve better economic opportunities.
Fast forward to 2009 and you will witness a Francisville revival. It is true that there are still acres of vacant buildings and land — approximately 29 percent of the neighborhood — and a commercial corridor along Ridge Avenue that has yet to recover from the riots of the 1960s and the suburban flight of the 1970s. However, you will also see Penelope Giles directing a group of young teenagers in the skills of urban environmental maintenance. Miss Penny, as the kids call her, is founder and Executive Director of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation (FNDC) and the creator of the Francisville Youth Community Caretakers Club, or FYC-3, whose motto is "love your community and it will love you back!"
Planning a Better Community
Penelope Giles, a life-long resident of Francisville, founded FNDC in 2003 along with a small group of other concerned neighbors. Giles says, "I started the organization because of the affordable housing construction between 1995 and 2002. My thinking was that the housing would increase the population so I thought it would be a good idea to begin an initiative to revitalize Ridge Avenue. Years of declining population and disinvestment have resulted in a severely blighted, vacant and highly unattractive commercial corridor, yet a few businesses still remain. While it's evident that change is afoot it cannot come soon enough for the few struggling businesses on Ridge Avenue." In 2005, FNDC participated in a workshop involving first-year University of Pennsylvania graduate planning students, who drafted the first commercial corridor revitalization plan for Ridge Avenue.
Until the late 1960s the area was a thriving six-block business corridor that would have rivaled any in a small town and drew in people from other parts of the city to patronize Ridge Avenue's businesses. There was a movie theater, department store, Gilbert's shoe store, a bustling indoor farmer's market selling fresh produce, meats and baked goods, a drug store, a full service grocery store, a bank and Rutberg's furs. Francisville's venues hosted a vibrant nightlife that attracted jazz legends John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young and others. Now littered with a few corner bars, a used appliance store and a take-out Chinese restaurant, Ridge Avenue captures only an estimated six percent of the $585 million purchasing power in the one-mile radius market area according to the 2005 study. Francisville lacks sufficient middle and upper- income inhabitants to support even the marginal retail available. One neighborhood resident lamented that there was not even a place to buy a dish cloth on Ridge Avenue. Another long-term resident mentioned that every teenager in Francisville used to go to Ridge Avenue to get their first job, but now there were no jobs at all. However, in Francisville, which desperately needed a diversity of income and new economic opportunities, gentrification was a dirty word. As the real estate boom reached its height and scattered parcels all around Francisville were snatched up for market rate housing construction, resident-fear mounted that they would be absorbed into Fairmount, the adjacent high-value neighborhood.
Ridge Avenue plan in hand, FNDC — then a 100 percent volunteer organization — partnered with two other local nonprofits and approached the Wachovia Regional Foundation for a neighborhood planning grant to help guide the neighborhood toward equitable development and provide strategies for economic revitalization. A $100,000 grant was awarded in 2006 that kicked off a 15-month resident-driven comprehensive neighborhood planning process led by Scott Page of Interface Studio LLC. Not surprisingly, survey responses revealed that doing something to improve Ridge Avenue and bringing back the farmer's market topped the list of most residents. FNDC, with no operating budget of its own, needed to figure out how to wipe away decades of disinvestment to deliver what residents wanted for the future of the neighborhood.
Engaging Our Youth in Planning
Resourceful as ever, Giles' idea for the FYC-3, an environmental maintenance training and employment program, occupied a prominent role in the final neighborhood plan: Moving Francisville Forward: a Blueprint for the Future. With several acres of vacant land, some not viable for housing and other redevelopment, Giles structured a synergistic program that would provide employment opportunities, reduce crime, clean up the neighborhood, preserve green space and jump start retail activity on Ridge Avenue. Giles explained, "The most pressing problems plaguing our community are crime, trash and the alarming rate at which we are losing our most valuable possession, our youth! To address these issues simultaneously we implemented the FYC-3 to provide economic opportunity, training and environmental sustainability education for youth and young adults ages 13 to 30, primarily to reduce crime and illegal activities in Francisville, improve the quality of life for residents by cleaning and greening the physical environment and thereby increasing the marketability of the neighborhood."
In spring 2008, FNDC secured a $35,000 Community Land Care contract from the City of Philadelphia to clean and maintain 100 vacant lots in Francisville. Managed by Giles and a few volunteers, FNDC hired several at-risk young adults from the neighborhood to regularly clean and mow the weed-ridden lots as well as provide some residential street cleaning, a service funded in part by resident-sponsored donations. By the end of the season in October, the initial group of FYC-3 young adults ages 18 to 30 hired by FNDC had successfully maintained nearly every vacant parcel in Francisville — over 400 total — quadruple what the City had paid for through the contract. In July, with the support of a few small grants and some additional funding from Wachovia, FNDC launched an FYC-3 summer program for at-risk youth ages 13 to 17 to augment the work of the young adult program. The goal of the summer corps is to lay the foundation for the youth to graduate into the FYC-3 young adult program to receive additional landscaping and entrepreneurship training. Along with teaching character-building and leadership skills, summer program participants work on one major community greening project where they learn basic urban landscaping techniques. They also participate in environmentally-focused workshops and field trips. All FYC-3 participants must pledge to remain drug-free and refrain from any illegal activities. Six of the 10 original youth summer program members graduated and received a stipend for successful program completion. These six will serve as mentors for this year's summer program, which will have another 10 participating youth. FNDC was also awarded a 2009 Community Land Care contract for $52,500, an increase of nearly $20,000 from the 2008 cycle, which will help FNDC continue to employ a few FYC-3 young adult participants.
Returning to Penn's Green Vision
Like William Penn's vineyard experiment, projects incorporating fruit cultivation demonstrate FNDC's commitment to revitalization by encouraging sustainable and healthy living. In the fall, FNDC and FYC-3 participants planted an orchard near Ridge Avenue in an underutilized space tucked away in an enclave surrounded by houses. This spring, in another area of Francisville, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter came out to plant an apple tree in newly created Ogden Park. A once overgrown and unsafe cluster of vacant parcels in the heart of the most residentially stable section of the neighborhood, Ogden Park is now an inviting open space with paths and landscaping for the community to enjoy. Giles also planted a blueberry bush in Ogden Park and plans to plant a grape vine arbor to remind people not just of Francisville's agricultural history but also that you don't have to go far to get fresh produce.
FNDC's dream of encouraging a green and healthy community is getting even grander. Through the neighborhood planning process, an open space on Field Street just off Ridge Avenue was identified as the perfect location for an urban farm and greenhouse named after Francisville's founder, Tench Francis. Planting for the farm should begin in 2010 and it will become the cornerstone of the FYC-3 training program. FYC-3 participants will be responsible for planting and managing the farm and orchard. Incorporating the farm's fresh produce into the Francisville Marketplace will be a catalyst in the long awaited revitalization of Ridge Avenue.
The current owner of the former farmer's market site, located on Ridge Avenue just below Girard Avenue, has agreed to partner with FNDC to create an open-air market for vendors to sell fresh and dry goods. It will create an opportunity for small and start-up merchants to get a foothold in the retail business. Hopefully those most successful will outgrow the Marketplace and relocate to currently vacant store fronts on Ridge Avenue, encouraging a robust local economy. The Marketplace will provide an additional opportunity for all FYC-3 participants to nurture their own entrepreneurial skills and learn how to run a business. FYC-3 members will grow fruits and vegetables at the Tench Francis Farm then sell their products in the Marketplace. In time, if the venture meets resident expectations, the current owner may build a permanent mixed-use structure that will house the Marketplace on the ground floor.
The FNDC and FYC-3 participants have been exposed to a range of planning initiatives, projects and activities that have proven successful in prompting the rebuilding of the Francisville neighborhood and the Ridge Avenue corridor. Since the launch of the FYC-3 in 2008, parents claim that their children's school grades have improved, while troubles at school and incidents of criminal activity have declined. After only one year, the cleanliness of the neighborhood has shown some marginal improvement but it will take several more years to change littering habits and deter short-dumping. Despite the current economic downturn, new market rate residential construction is still going up, with new residents moving in. Indeed, this June the community voted in favor of a plan for a new sustainable condominium located on a prime residential development parcel. The condo development, a potentially LEED Platinum certified project, includes 65 percent open space, a portion of which would house a vineyard available to community residents and FYC-3 program participants. The neighborhood overwhelmingly favored this project to another option, a traditional brick New Urbanist style development.
Like many other community-based nonprofits, FNDC is struggling financially to make ends meet while maintaining momentum. The small and incremental changes, however, are visible if you look closely. Francisville and Ridge Avenue will continue to make strides toward truly capturing the innovative vision of the residents and laying the ground work for future generations to enjoy new economic opportunities in a greener, more vibrant urban oasis.
Kristin Szwajkowski has served as chair of the Board of Directors of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation since 2007, served as unpaid acting executive director in 2006 and project director for the Francisville comprehensive neighborhood plan during 2006-2007. Ms. Szwajkowski currently serves as an officer in the Civic Initiatives program at The Pew Charitable Trusts. Prior to joining Pew, she held several positions at the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation including, most recently, vice president in the Market Development Group. Ms. Szwajkowski also served as the American Planning Association Economic Development Division conference chair for the 2007 APA National Planning Conference held in Philadelphia. She holds a master of government from The Johns Hopkins University and a master of city planning from the University of Pennsylvania.
Images: Top — FYC-3 participants and FNDC volunteers working on Ogden Park (2008). Photo Penelope Giles. Middle — FYC-3 summer program participants learning to trim street trees (2008). Photo Penelope Giles. Bottom — Before and After: Overgrown Ogden Street lots (2008) and completed Ogden Park (2009).Photos Penelope Giles and Kristin Szwajkowski.