A New Angle on the Triangle
“Give yourselves a hand,” said Sandra Harmon, with great enthusiasm. Sandra is the Data and Outreach Coordinator for the Nicetown Community Development Corporation. She is also a resident of Logan. Her words were in praise of a gardening project on long-abandoned land, infamously known as the Logan Triangle, which Friends Select fifth graders worked on as part of their Four in Philly week this past spring.
A mild round of applause followed Sandra’s booming command.
“Come on, you can do better than that,” roared back Sandra. “Look at all the amazing hard work you just did!”
A bit more self-acclaim followed, but modesty still tempered the clapping.
Sandra was relentless: “Still not good enough. I mean a real round of applause!”
This time, finally, a heartfelt ovation from the fifth graders ensued.
“Much better,” said Sandra. “No one has done what you all just did. You’re all real heroes!”
The Logan Triangle
Image - Logan Triangle area before renovation
The Logan Triangle refers to a large contiguous tract of abandoned, neglected land located in the Logan neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The tract is bounded by North 11th Street, West Loudon Street, and Roosevelt Boulevard. At approximately 45 acres, the Logan Triangle is one of the largest parcels of vacant land in the city. Its name derives from its predominant shape, as well as from certain similarities it shares with the Bermuda Triangle. Whereas the Bermuda Triangle is a section of the Atlantic Ocean where many ships and planes are alleged to have mysteriously disappeared, the Logan Triangle is a section of Philadelphia where nearly 1,000 houses did, in fact, disappear, owing to a string of extremely ill-conceived urban planning decisions.
Prior to the founding of Philadelphia, the area that now includes the Logan Triangle was comprised of vibrant forest, with a sizable stream running through it. Into the 1880s, the Wingohocking Creek flowed from Mount Airy and Germantown, through Logan, to Juniata, where it merged with Tacony Creek to form Frankford Creek, which flows into the Delaware River. As Philadelphia continued to grow in the late 1800s, city engineers devised plans to manage sewage and stormwater in a rapidly developing metropolis. A major component of such planning was to convert once-thriving streams into underground piped segments of the municipal sewer system. From the 1880s through the 1920s, the Wingohocking Creek was confined to a large pipe and buried, dramatically transformed from a natural stream to a combined sewer, carrying both raw sewage and stormwater. Invisible to all, the creek still flows today.
Like many natural streams, the Wingohocking was nestled somewhat deep in a valley, which it had carved out over thousands of years. Along with the decision to pipe the stream, the city made plans to fill the stream valley to a generally flat level that would allow for the new construction of streets and neighborhoods. The choice of fill material to bring the valley up to street level was ill-fated from the start. Instead of specifying a structurally sound, environmentally safe, soil-based material, the city opted for a substance that was plentiful, cheap, and toxic, with the consistency of baking flour: coal ash, about 500,000 cubic yards of it, up to 48 feet deep in places.
Beginning in the 1920s, a middle-class neighborhood was built right over the still-flowing Wingohocking Creek and its adjacent stream valley. In only a few decades, signs of unstable ground began revealing themselves in the houses of Logan: sagging porches, drooping floors, foundation cracks, unevening stairways, and the like. Due to compaction and erosion of the underlying coal ash, the houses of Logan were slowly sinking. In 1959, ground resettling caused a gas main pipe to crack and leak gas, leading to an explosion that damaged several houses. As time wore on, sagging and cracking continued.
In 1986, another cracked gas pipe sparked explosions that destroyed a row of houses on 10th Street in Logan. After this tragedy, city engineers surveyed the surrounding area and found almost 1,000 homes to be unstable. They characterized many of these structures to be either dangerous or in imminent danger of collapse. The city responded with a plan to relocate affected residents and compensate them through a legal process called eminent domain. From 1988 to 2000, 957 homes were razed and approximately 5,000 residents were forced to relocate. Since well before 2000, various urban plans have been unfurled and many positive promises have been made. Yet after 30-plus years since the 1986 explosions, until June of this year, not a single sign of progress could be detected on the Logan Triangle.
What then, if anything, could 37 fifth graders do to lessen the bleakness of the Logan Triangle?
Day 1: Exploring
For one day of the Four in Philly, students from fifth grade teachers Stephanie Demko and Amanda Cartier-Brandon’s classes learned about various topics and issues related to the Logan Triangle story. They learned about challenges of living in inner-city Philadelphia. They discussed social justice and learned that justice is not always meted out equally among all Philly neighborhoods. The students learned about the importance of water as a resource and neighborhood access to natural green space. They walked along parts of Lansdowne Creek, a relatively clean and natural stream in West Philadelphia. They observed frogs, turtles, fish, and birds, all enjoying the natural environment.
The students also visited the plant nursery LandHealth Institute. While there, they learned about the importance of native plants, plants indigenous to our region, which grew wild here prior to European settlement. They observed fruits and vegetables growing in raised beds and learned about the issue of food deserts in inner-city neighborhoods. As their day of adventure came to an end, each student selected a potted native plant to care for in advance of a garden planting project in Logan the following day.
Day 2: Doubts
The next day, the group visited the Logan Triangle, where they were joined by Bill Scott, a social entrepreneur involved in social ventures in Logan. After a discussion of the history and present challenges of the area, the kids toured the area on foot. Although the neighborhood lies just a few miles away from Friends Select, the view was unlike anything that most students had ever encountered. Acres of streets, formerly lined with row houses, now sat abandoned, lined with littered, overgrown fields. Huge trucks were parked on some streets, the drivers co-opting the Triangle for use as a truckstop. Piles of debris, illegally dumped, rested alongside countless Jersey barriers lining many of the streets. One student accidentally stepped on broken glass and needed a bandage for his minor injury. Another student had an uncomfortable encounter with a disrespectful young person from the neighborhood. Yesterday, the students frolicked through beautiful green space, eating wild cherries from trees and sucking nectar from wild honeysuckle. Today, they were trekking through an urban wasteland. For many, this experience was anything but fun.
Unseen by all, a creek still flowed, underfoot. A low area in the landscape was perceptible: a vestige of the former sylvan stream valley. A street sign paid homage to the past: Wingohocking Street.
Doubt and unease permeated the fifth grade air.
“What are we doing here?” a student asked. “How can we do anything that’ll help here?” The expressions on the faces of several other students seemed to be asking similar questions.
A change in scene was needed. The students took a short ride to the neighborhood of Juniata Park, where they visited Ferko Playground for a plunge in nature, as well as a reviving lunch break. At the back of Ferko Playground, a wire-cut opening in a cyclone fence serves as a gateway to Frankford Creek, just downstream of the former confluence of Wingohocking Creek and Tacony Creek. As soon as the students saw the flowing water of Frankford Creek, they immediately sprouted back to frolicking life. “Can we go in?” was the universal question, to which there was but one answer.
From a large peninsula of rocks, upon which the students eagerly bounded, there was a clear view of an imposing tunnel-like structure: the outlet of the Wingohocking Creek sewer line, which is 24 feet high and hewn of stone—the largest such structure in Philadelphia. The outlet structure marks the spot where the formerly free-flowing Wingohocking met up with the Tacony to form the Frankford. On this clear, sunny day, no water flowed from the outlet. Behind it, unseen, flowed the Wingohocking, mixed with raw sewage, toward a local sewage treatment plant. On certain rainy days, when lots of stormwater enters the Wingohocking sewer via street inlets, the stormwater mixes with flowing underground creek water and sewage. When this combined flow reaches a certain level, part of it—the overflow amount—flows through the Wingohocking outlet structure, directly into Frankford Creek. This overflow feature of the combined sewer system prevents sewage from backing up into people’s homes. So, instead of invading people’s basements and crawlspaces, raw sewage flows freely, untreated, down the Frankford, then down the Delaware River, into Delaware Bay, and finally becomes a part of the Atlantic Ocean ecosystem.
Some kids expressed mild interest in the outlet structure and its implications. (“Is there sewage in this water?” inquired a few.) However, the minds of most were on, and their bodies were in, the pools and rapids of Frankford Creek. The fact that a scene similar to this used to exist in Logan, a couple of miles away, was not on the forefront of anyone’s awareness. Likewise, scant attention was paid to the colorful, singing Baltimore orioles flying overhead. Rather, all focus was directed toward balancing on rocks, wading against the current, searching for treasures—all manifestations of personally connecting with the living stream. Unbeknownst to the kids, they were brilliantly acting out the case for the vital importance of direct access to natural green space and daylit, living aquatic systems.
Image- Logan Triangle area after renovation
Seeds of Change
Rejuvenated by their creek encounter (and lunch), the fifth graders headed back to the Logan Triangle with a new sense of purpose. Yesterday, they had selected various native plants. Now they were about to plant them. Back at Logan Triangle, everyone gathered in a spot at the edge of the Triangle, across 11th Street from Sandra Harmon’s house. Sandra was present, as were a few other neighbors. Visible were two wooden raised garden beds, constructed by Devon Froeder, a Drexel student working for LandHealth Institute. Next to the planting beds were many shovels, several bags of soil, and a variety of potted vegetable plants. The fifth graders carried the native plants they had chosen from the school bus to the planting area. Many of the kids were wearing T-shirts, designed by Drexel student/LandHealth employee Katarina Hojohn. On the shirts was the message: “New Angle on the Triangle.”
Upon seeing the planting site laid out as such, the students responded with vigor and a strong sense of purpose. Needing minimal oversight, the kids collaborated expertly. In the native bed, they intermixed plant species and spaced them out evenly. In the vegetable bed, they grouped plants by variety. In rather short order, the focused team effort yielded two beautiful side-by-side gardens.
Sandra gathered the students for a discussion. Her goal clearly was to let the kids know just how important their efforts were to the community. Sandra touched on past disappointments, hopes for the future, and the topics of community engagement and social justice. A student asked if any similar projects on the Triangle had been attempted in the past. Sandra replied no. In her memory, the FSS fifth graders were the first group to carry out a landscape improvement project on the Logan Triangle. After engaging with Sandra, the students had every reason to believe that they were all true heroes in Logan.
The Friends Select fifth grade left the Logan Triangle with two well-planted gardens and four watering cans. A short time later the students were off on their summer vacations.
In the summer months following the community project, local residents have tended the gardens successfully. The purples, whites, yellows, and oranges of the natives have flourished, and butterflies and other pollinators have responded. Healthy, fine-looking tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and basil are abundant. A small group of Friends Select campers, working in conjunction with LandHealth, added two more raised beds. Another youth group designed, constructed, and installed a birdfeeder, water catcher, bench, signage, and sunflower border. A local community gathering at the site is in the works. Often, when people walk or drive past the project site, they stop, they ask questions, they admire. The student project, situated not many strides from threatening “no trespassing” signs, has become a tangible place.
The fifth grade greening project may be viewed as a simple social experiment: When a group of middle school students, not from the local neighborhood, shows a little love and care to blighted land lying amidst a neglected neighborhood, can such a gesture spark actual social improvement? With regard to the fifth grade project, it is too early to tell. By creating a new, positive place in an area ignored for decades, the students undoubtedly planted a seed. In the early going following the project, the seed has been nurtured by others. But it has yet to take healthy root, still susceptible to the whims of ingrained local cynicism or a wayward riding mower. For the seed to emerge with staying power, more direct involvement and investment from the local community is essential.
At least as encouraging as the native flowers and vegetables thriving upon a small section of the Logan Triangle are several recent promising developments. Three local public schools, two local churches, several local civic leaders, and several local residents have expressed real interest in the greening activities initiated by the fifth graders, and a real desire to become involved. Thus, many ingredients needed for change are clearly identifiable. Next, for needed change to start occurring, these ingredients must be mixed and engaged.
As an institution that prides itself as a private school with a public purpose, Friends Select has a golden opportunity to further initiate change in a place that has been jaded by 30 years of empty promises. The surrounding environs of Friends Select and the Logan neighborhood differ dramatically. Yet they lie just five miles from one another, connected by a short ride on the Broad Street subway. And on the far end of that subway ride lie countless opportunities for urban learning, community engagement, new peer group interaction, and true difference-making.