For several years Vernon Park has experienced neglect and decline, as more and more of the businesses surrounding it closed and several of the historical, once vibrant buildings in the Germantown section of the city deteriorated.
On Wednesday night, city and state officials joined neighbors for the first of a weekly "Oldies in the Park" series; one of several events that Eighth District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass hopes will be an instrument of inspiration to help revitalize the Germantown neighborhood.
“We were looking for different things we could do to get people reconnected to their community, and feeling good about their community, and really taking charge of their community. And so we thought that this would be one that would naturally be a good fit,” Bass said.
“When we do activities like this, really it looks like a good time, but there’s another motive that’s really in play here and that’s to do some community organizing.”
The free event, sponsored by Bass, Third Floor Media, Germantown Restoration CDC, the Black Writers Museum and state Rep. Stephen Kinsey invites residents to enjoy dancing, picnicking, giveaways and more while listening to old school jams.
Rodney Garvin was one of some 60 people in attendance. The Olney resident said he heard about the series on the radio and decided to come.
“I think it’s a real good idea because it brings people together to, you know, have somewhere to cool out after a long day of work,” Garvin said.
Vernon Park, located near the corner of Germantown and Chelten, sits only a few blocks from the now vacant Germantown High School and neighboring Fulton Elementary School, an already vacant YWCA building recently destroyed by fire, and a dilapidated Town Hall building, struggling to re-open. Due to years of lack of adequate supervision, some residents had grown fearful of visiting the park, especially at night.
“This park had a dark side and at one point it turned really, really bad. And people were afraid. And that might be why there’s not as many people here because the park has gotten a bad rep with all of the derelicts and the drug dealers; at night this can be a scary place,” Germantown resident Joanne Jones said.
“But it wasn’t always like that. This park used to be poppin' back in the day.”
Supreme Dow was born and raised in Germantown. The founder and executive director of the Black Writers Museum, which recently relocated from the Maplewood Mall on Germantown Avenue to the Vernon House building in Vernon Park said he remembers a time when the park was buzzing with positive activity.
“I’ve been in this park all of my life. I remember Frank Jones had his People’s Festival here for 20-25 years. Every summer for two days, Germantown was known for having this festival and you’d have the African marketplace, you’d have vendors and amateur bands, jazz and R&B, you’d have artists; it was just a festive event. That event was really known across the region and we don’t have that anymore,” Dow said.
Dow wants to bring some of that action back to the park through the presence of the Black Writers Museum.
“We want to utilize Vernon Park as a hub for the cultural revitalization in this area. Vernon Park is really like a tale of two cities. If you look on this side, toward Greene Street, you see one thing; if you go toward Germantown Avenue you see something else. And what’s in the middle of that? The Vernon House. So we decided to put a cultural institution in the middle of this all to create the peaceful environment that you see on the Greene Street side on the Germantown Avenue side,” he said.
Gary Shepherd, President of Third Floor Media but best known for his time as an afternoon drive host for Philadelphia radio station WDAS-FM, served as the emcee for the event. Shepherd, also a longtime resident of Germantown said he believes the Oldies in the Park series and the addition of the Black Writers Museum will encourage residents to return to the park.
“It’s about reviving the life of Vernon Park but also letting the residents of Germantown know, hey, it’s safe to come out enjoy your park. You know, that’s what it’s here for, your enjoyment. Our hope is that they will take that to heart, spread the message and become ambassadors to say hey, we’ve got it together here in Germantown,” Shepherd said.
State Representative for the 201st legislative district Stephen Kinsey shares overlapping district areas with councilwoman Bass. The two forged a partnership and created a shared vision for using Vernon Park as a reminder of what Germantown used to be and a symbol of what it has the potential to become.
“Vernon Park is really kind of in the middle of Germantown; it’s in the middle of the commercial corridor so its accessible, and it’s an area that I think really has not risen to the potential that it has. And so the idea is to really get it to that place where it could be, or should be,” Bass said.
“We both have a strong commitment to our communities. The fact that she and I had areas that overlap, it allowed us to just come together and as we sat down and talked about a vision for Germantown, we realized it was a similar vision. We want to clean it up, we want to bring more businesses here,” Kinsey said.
“Germantown has a rich history and we just want to pool our resources together, because working together we can do it more efficiently and effectively and more folks can benefit from that.”
In a separate effort, tonight, Germantown United CDC and Friends of Vernon Park will host a free screening of Casablanca for the first of a series of movie nights in Vernon Park, called Stars Under the Trees.
Bass said she’s happy that organizations are beginning to consider Vernon Park as their venue of choice again.
“I think it’s great, the more activity here the better. It’s been a long time since there’s been this sort of activity and community building here in Vernon Park,” she said.
Oldies in the Park will continue every Wednesday through Aug. 28 and any rain dates will be picked up in September.
The Black Writers Museum expects to have its grand re-opening at the Vernon House on Sept. 7.