A New Angle on the Triangle

Scott Quitel, Drexel University Director of Social Entrepreneurship and Assistant Teaching Professor

“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!”

 

MS Four in Philly

The Logan Triangle

The Logan Triangle refers to a large contiguous tract of abandoned, neglected land located in the Logan neighborhood of North Philadelphia. Bounded by North 11th Street, West Loudon Street, and Roosevelt Boulevard, the Logan Triangle spans 45 acres, 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 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 ill-conceived urban planning decisions.

Prior to the founding of Philadelphia in 1682, the area that now includes the Logan Triangle was comprised of vibrant forest, with a sizable stream running through it. For the next 200 years, 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, city engineers devised plans to manage sewage and stormwater for the rapidly developing metropolis, converting 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 to this day.

Like many natural streams, the Wingohocking was nestled somewhat deep in a valley, which it had carved out over thousands of years. The city piped the stream and 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, splitting stairways. Due to compaction and erosion of the underlying coal ash, the houses of Logan began to sink. 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 to other parts of the city. Various plans have been introduced and promises have been made. Yet almost 35 years later, no progress could be detected on the Logan Triangle. 

What then, if anything, could 37 fifth graders do there?

Day 1: Exploring 

On the first day of the Four in Philly, students from Stephanie Demko and Amanda Cartier-Brandon’s fifth grade classes learned about the Logan Triangle. They learned about the challenges of living in an inner city. They discussed social justice and learned that justice is not equally distributed. They learned about the importance of water as a resource, and about 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 enjoying the natural environment.

The students also visited the plant nursery at 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 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 garden-planting in Logan the following day.

Day 2: Doubts

The next day, the students visited the Logan Triangle, where they were joined by Bill Scott, an entrepreneur involved in social ventures in Logan. After a discussion of the history and present-day challenges, the students toured the area on foot. Although the neighborhood lies just a few miles 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 stepped on broken glass and needed a bandage. Another student had an uncomfortable encounter with a disrespectful young person from the neighborhood. The day before, 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. The experience had turned far less 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.

Scene Change

“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 echoed the question. 

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, and a reviving lunch break. At the back of Ferko Playground, a wire-cut opening in a cyclone fence opens up 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?” they asked, 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, 24 feet high and stone-hewn—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—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, into the Atlantic Ocean ecosystem.

A few students expressed mild interest in the outlet structure and its implications. (“Is there sewage in this water?”) 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 unknown. Scant attention was paid to the colorful, singing Baltimore orioles flying overhead. Rather, focus was on balancing on rocks, wading against the current, searching for treasures—all manifestations of personal connections with a living stream. The students were unknowingly, brilliantly making the case for the vital importance of access to natural green space and daylit, living aquatic systems.

Seeds of Change

Rejuvenated by their creek encounter (and lunch), the students headed back to the Logan Triangle with a new sense of purpose. The day before, 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 there, with a few neighbors. The group admired two wooden raised garden beds, built by Devon Froeder, a Drexel student working for LandHealth. Next to the planting beds were shovels, several bags of soil, and a variety of potted vegetable plants. The students carried the native plants they had chosen from the school bus to the planting area. Many were wearing T-shirts, designed by Drexel student Katarina Hojohn, that read: “New Angle on the Triangle.”

Upon seeing the planting site, the students responded with vigor and a strong sense of purpose. With 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 short order, this focused effort yielded two beautiful side-by-side gardens.

Sandra gathered the students for a discussion. Her goal clearly was to let them know just how important their efforts were to the community. Sandra touched on past disappointments, hopes for the future, 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 Friends Select fifth graders were the first group to carry out a landscape improvement project on the Logan Triangle. The students had every reason to believe that they were true heroes in Logan.

The students left the Logan Triangle with two well-planted gardens and four watering cans. Then they were off to begin their summer vacations.

In the months following the community project, local residents tended the gardens. The purples, whites, yellows, and oranges of the natives flourished, and butterflies and other pollinators responded. Healthy, fine-looking tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and basil were abundant. A small group of Friends Select campers, working 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, ask questions, admire. These student projects, just feet from threatening “no trespassing” signs, have become a destination.

Opportunity 

This greening project may be viewed as a social experiment: When a group of middle school students who are from outside the local neighborhood care for blighted, neglected land there, can such a gesture spark actual social improvement? While it is too early to tell, the act of creating a new, positive place in an area long ignored for decades is analogous to planting a seed. In the months following, the seed was nurtured by others. LandHealth is looking to understand if it takes healthy root, and becomes less susceptible to the whims of ingrained local cynicism or a wayward riding mower. For the seed to grow and thrive, increased direct involvement and investment from the local community is essential.

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 interest in the greening activities initiated by the students, and a desire to become involved. With the ingredients needed for change, the next step is activating and facilitating this engagement.

As an institution that prides itself as a private school with a public purpose, Friends Select has a golden opportunity to continue to initiate change in a special place carrying 35 years of empty promises. While Center City and the Logan neighborhood differ dramatically, they are just five miles apart, connected by a short subway or bike ride. And that ride leads to countless opportunities for urban learning, community engagement, new peer group interaction, and true difference-making.