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Will we save the meadow that saved us?

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Like many American cities, Philadelphia is built on land that wants to be wet. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Park sits in a particularly soggy corner, right at the junction where the Schuylkill River rushes into the Delaware. The park is perforated by several lakes and water channels, and flooding regularly renders pedestrian walkways impassible. Over the decades a monstrous tonnage of earth has been trucked in to raise the level of the park. It has been hauled in from the excavation of subway lines, the construction of railway lines and the demolition of water sanitation plants—all in an effort to raise the level of the marsh. FDR is essentially estuarial bogland posing as parkland, a space where the urban and the swamp collide and form startling juxtapositions. The Tastykake headquarters, for example, can be smelled in the southwest corner of the park, where the scents of butterscotch krimpets and pine sap mix and you can see the bright, blue steel of the Girard Point Bridge jutting out of the tree line into the sky.

Cheryl Brubaker is the current tenant and custodian of Bellaire Manor, a historic house that stands within FDR’s former golf course. Brubaker moved into the manor in 1986 and over many years watched through her window as the puddling got worse. “They put like 30 feet of fill in here when they built the course [in 1940] … but of course that has not been replaced … so it’s just slowly sinking and settling … and then in 2018 one of the guys from the course told me that they had closed the course 80 days out of the season because of flooding.” Eighty days is one third of the season.

The 18th-century mansion Bellaire Manor originally sat at the water’s edge in FDR Park. Photography by Chris Baker Evens.

The 146-acre golf course officially closed in October 2019, six months after the unveiling of a new design to transform the entirety of the park, a design referred to as the Master Plan. The document was released in May 2019 and was full of eye-catching graphics and utopian renderings of what the future of FDR Park could look like. Soaring kites, beatific children and lovers strolling at the golden hour, all compiled to form a mouthwatering compendium of civic imagination. Phase one of the plan was supposed to kick off in the spring of 2020, but there was, of course, a pandemic-sized hitch and all the funds necessary to implement the plan were diverted. Not a shovel was raised, not a stake was driven, and the seeds beneath the golf course, which had been patiently waiting for 80 years for the mower to cease its rounds, began to germinate.

Along the fairways and through the putting greens, speedwell, celandine and chickweed erupted. Over two seasons, goldenrod and boneset have followed, growing in dense stands taller than the humans who once golfed there. Countless roaring dandelions and delicate swamp rose-mallow punctuate the green, as magenta-stemmed pokeweed tangles with blackberry canes. Foot-high oak saplings and bald cypress babies now circle their mother trees, and with all the seed heads exploding, new insects and birds are increasing each year. Monarch butterflies alight like glowing embers upon the milkweed, praying mantises stalk the rushes, crickets sing to the very bitter end of autumn, and goldfinches bob their lucent trails across the thorny crowns of nursing thistle heads. Someone sighted a snapping turtle, then an otter. Brubaker tells me she got to watch two bald eagles engaged in an elaborate courtship display right outside Bellaire Manor. “He was stomping around slapping puddles with his wing.” She bends her knees and plods heavily from one foot to the other, showing me the eagle’s most impressive mating moves. “My birder-friend was freaking out, saying ‘I’ve never seen anything like this!’”

The rolling hills and the grasses and the sort of groomed wildness of it was so breathtaking.”

— Christina Zani, South Philly resident

In 2020, the birds, bugs and flowers were all thriving at the Meadows, but what about the humans? Let us not forget the humans, who were not yet vaccinated and desperately seeking ways to safely congregate or simply to escape the doom of Zoom. The humans had started wandering into this newly-resurrected meadow. There was an uncanny synergy of desires, as if the Meadows had risen up to embrace them, to offer them resilience in the face of an escalating death toll — bloom in a moment of terror and quarantine. South Philly resident Christina Zani says that the first time she entered the Meadows she felt like she was in Tuscany. “The rolling hills and the grasses and the sort of groomed wildness of it was so breathtaking. We brought both kids and the dog and everyone was just sort of tumbling and rambling and like arms stretched out and just feeling curious and free and running in the sun. It was a sanity saver.”

But of course the Meadows was never part of the Master Plan. Within the boundaries of the Meadows, the Master Plan calls for 12 multipurpose athletic fields, 10 tennis courts, five parking lots, four baseball diamonds, four basketball courts, a playground, a concession stand and one driving range (but not a partridge in a pear tree). Let me stand back a moment to say that there are many admirable dimensions to the Master Plan. This is not a story of goodies versus baddies. This is a story of a well-vetted plan, a plan that went through rigorous community outreach meetings, a plan that was called into question not by feuding parties or political scandal, but by the sheer beauty and resilience of a wild meadow.

A plan to dominate the landscape

Some of the admirable aspects of the Master Plan are the restoration of over 30 acres of wetlands, the development of a welcome center (with bathrooms!), and an ambitious attempt to rejigger the park’s entire topography so that it won’t completely disappear under rising tides in the next century. Much of the park is at or below sea level, and the park’s tidal gate “effectively allows the park to exist, closing the influx of water at high tide and draining the park at low tide.” The malfunctioning gate will be fixed. The Master Plan also aims to mitigate flooding by building several large lagoons and using excavated fill to once again raise the level of the marsh. The construction crews employed by the plan will essentially sculpt a new park, much the way a sandcastle is built—scooping out lagoons instead of moats to be heaped into hills instead of towers. Unfortunately, we know what eventually happens to sandcastles. “FDR Park has always been a product of human invention and imagination,” states the Master Plan, “and it will continue to be in this resilient vision for the historic park.”

I find calling the park “a product of human invention and imagination” an interesting admission, one that I would never have unearthed if I had not fallen in love with the Meadows. The park has certainly and unarguably been sculpted by humans, but the words “product of human invention” bend towards a domination narrative I find a little startling. In the wonderfully wry words of Elizabeth Kolbert: “If control is the problem, then, by logic of the Anthropocene, still more control must be the solution.”

But something gloriously shambolic and uncontrollable is happening at the Meadows. Cheryl Brubaker tells me she watches people pause at the threshold, wondering not only what path to take, but how the golf course they knew disappeared beneath six feet of flowers. The resiliency of the seed bank startles people—all that latent wild power resurrecting itself after 80 years of dormancy. No one even tilled the soil.

The South Philly Meadows, formerly a public golf course in FDR Park, grew out of pandemic-stalled park renovations in 2020.

The Meadows is “a place I can breathe again,” says Dominique Messihi, who co-runs a homeschooling pod there. “I didn’t know I needed that until I was [there].” And why is this encounter with wildness so utterly refreshing to us? Perhaps because we live in an age where we, for the most part, shape the earth processes that once shaped us. Before us, only a legion of volcanos or an asteroid colliding with the Earth could be the cause of a great extinction event. Now we are the asteroids. Rivers have been dammed, mountaintops leveled, marshes made into golf courses. In the Meadows, many of us feel, at last, this relinquishing of control, this psychic break, this abnegation of a colonizing will. Perhaps we feel the absence of — for lack of a better phrase — a master plan.

This is not a place a meadow would exist in nature if we hadn’t artificially created it. It’s at the bottom of the bathtub … ”

— Maura McCarthy, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy

But the architects and defenders of the Master Plan will shake their heads and point out that the Meadow is nice, for now, but it is temporary, full of invasives, and not even a real meadow but an artificial one. When asked (by me) in a public forum whether or not the Meadows would be preserved, Maura McCarthy, executive director of Fairmount Park Conservancy, stated: “This is not a place a meadow would exist in nature if we hadn’t artificially created it. It’s at the bottom of the bathtub, that’s actually below sea level …Where we can, yes, we will artificially recreate some of the landscape of meadow.”

If the forum had been a live discussion, not a webinar, I could have interrupted to clarify that it is not the habitat category of meadow that moves me. It is wildness, which to me means land engaged in self-directed creation, and it is a realization — on witnessing such numinous creativity — that the land is not an object, but a subject, not an it, but a thou.

Messihi also feels frustrated at the offering of a “recreated” meadow. “Can’t we just keep this?!” she asks. Why build another? That tomorrow the Meadows might resemble more of a muddy savannah, or a marsh, does not matter to her. Help pick up the trash, maintain a few elevated pathways, and she’ll be satisfied. If the park staff wants to engage with battling the invasives, she and her children report they’re excited to volunteer.

But the goal, says Allison Schapker, chief project officer at Fairmount Park Conservancy, “the goal is not to … return to nature. We have all passed the point of that being possible.” I don’t believe it’s actually possible to depart from nature (just as it’s not possible to stop breathing if you want to stay alive). What I believe Schapker means to say is that if we stop raising the level of the marsh, we will have to sacrifice some of our plans.

Available playing fields or wild space?

The Master Plan is designed to take FDR from two soccer fields to 12, from zero basketball courts to eight, from one playground to two. If the plan were simply to double or even triple the amount of fields existing presently, much of the Meadows could remain. Where does the incentive for this amount of increase come from? Revenue, perhaps? The fields will be permitted, and permits bring money to the City’s coffers. It’s also well documented that Philadelphia is a candidate for the 2026 World Cup and has pitched South Philly Meadows as one of the potential spaces for their tournament. If Philly won the bid (a significant if), FIFA could contribute up to $200 million to support elements of the Master Plan. A notable number given that the budget for the entire Master Plan is about $256 million, of which only $90 million has been currently raised. Which is to say, even if FIFA were only in town for a month it could bankroll most of the plan. But, unlike all the other spaces wrapped into the FIFA pitch, FDR is cherished public land.

If FDR is at the bottom of the bathtub, wouldn’t it be better to keep it a meadow/emerging-marsh than turn it into a multipurpose recreational zone thousands of people depend upon for dry turf? According to the Master Plan, “climate projections estimate Philadelphia could see an increase in average annual precipitation of up to five inches, and sea level of up to four feet by 2100.” These are, of course, shifting predictions that grow wetter and deeper as our emissions rise. If the climate warms by two degrees Celsius, a map on climatecentral.org shows tides surging as far as Oregon Avenue, a mile north of FDR Park. The acreage where the Meadows now sits has failed as an athletic zone in the past under less pressure. In the face of catastrophic climate change, why try again? Let the space be muddy and let it be wild. A green sponge is always the best buffer against rising tides. Why not use the $100 million allotted for field construction to build quality athletic zones in neighborhoods on higher ground, possibly transforming abandoned lots into vital community centers that currently have no space for recreation? As one working parent commented in a virtual FDR open house, “I don’t need fields at the farthest southern point in Philly. There is a soccer field that is currently permanently locked two blocks away from my house. Sports fields and playgrounds belong in neighborhoods unlocked and maintained.”

The soccer field she’s talking about turns out to be the one across the street from me—Columbus Square. It’s a balmy Sunday, for February, and the field is locked and empty right now. I can see two teenagers trying to scale the fence. As I watch them struggle to break in, I wonder if this feeling of field scarcity is in many ways an administrative failure. Perhaps it is not easy to assess the presence, occupation or vacancy of sports fields in Philly because the City wants you to come through them with paperwork — and, more importantly, money — in hand. If I get on the Parks & Recreation finder-site and search “soccer,” the resulting eight hits — which for some reason include a Gamblers Anonymous meeting — all point to activities, not locations. How exactly do you find a
vacant field in this city?

I checked in with Alvaro Drake-Cortés about this question. He’s the liaison between FDR Park and the soccer leagues that often use its fields for Sunday games. Drake-Cortés told me that the two existing fields at FDR aren’t in great shape and they could use a few more, but when I asked him what the right number of fields was, he said, “Twelve may be a little bit much, just to be honest with you.” But even if 12 were the right number, 12 fields should and could be found (or built) within the city proper without fragmenting the vital space emerging at South Philly Meadows. And before we spend $100 million on the construction of fields at FDR, could we spend a few hundred thousand to develop a citizen-friendly website where all public fields were listed and mapped, where they could be reserved, and, if necessary, permitted? As I look out my window at the gaping nets across the street waiting for a goalie to guard them, the notion of field scarcity seems like a communication and distribution problem, not a land use and construction one. We have several recreational sports fields in South Philly, and there are spaces where we could build more, but what we don’t have at all is wild space. You have to drive 20 minutes to find pockets in Fairmount or go all the way to the Wissahickon in order to have a decent ramble, and, for many, that is a 30-minute car ride away. For those without cars, it’s over an hour of multiple bus and train rides.

A kangaroo sculpture from an Australian flora and fauna exhibit in the 2021 Philadelphia Flower Show, held at FDR Park.

Convenience trumps resilience – and health concerns

In June 2021 a petition against the Meadows’ inclusion in the FIFA bid started circulating. I signed it along with about 2,000 other people. Eventually an email arrived in my inbox saying that there was a protest scheduled for September 22, 2021, the day of FIFA’s site visit. It was the first day of fall, and there was a crisp breeze cutting through the lingering summer haze. I saw a cyclist ahead of me with a cardboard sign strapped to his rack and knew we were headed to the same spot for the same reason. His sign read, “I love soccer, but save the Meadows,” in big bubbly letters with a blooming milkweed plant in the corner. A carefully drawn monarch butterfly was sipping up its nectar. At the entrance to the Meadows we met up with other protestors carrying other banners that read “Meadows not money” and “Preserve our wild space.”

But even if FIFA doesn’t pave the way for the destruction of the Meadows, the Master Plan will still attempt to cover the majority of it in a layer of synthetic turf. Synthetic turf is convenient because it doesn’t need to be mowed, fertilized or watered, and it won’t turn into a mud pit after it’s been trampled for hours by opposing teams, but it doesn’t support the larger ecosystem. It also doesn’t photosynthesize or sequester carbon in an age when carbon emissions are racing towards a tipping point. In fact, synthetic turf is a product derived from fossil fuels, and so creates a significant amount of emissions before it has even been rolled out. Twelve athletic fields worth of synthetic turf is a lot of plastic—the equivalent of every registered citizen in Philadelphia dumping 130 plastic bags on the Meadows. A pointed comparison, considering that the City recently enacted a ban on plastic bags. Also, the fake turf will inevitably break down and introduce micro-plastics into the soil and surrounding watershed. It will be ingested by wildlife and pollute those wetlands the plan purports to revitalize and bolster. It retains heat, in some cases becoming too hot to walk on. And perhaps most detrimental, many turfs use tire crumb infill, which is made from recycled tires that can off-gas toxic fumes, such as styrene and butadiene, which damage the nervous system and cause cancer.

The Master Plan should be amended to state that it will bury almost 30 acres of currently existing meadows beneath a layer of plastic.

The Master Plan claims that synthetic field surfaces will “maximize playtime and reduce maintenance needs,” but any surface that doesn’t degrade and regenerate itself needs to be cleaned, which can mean brushing, hosing down and sometimes vacuuming. In as little as 10 years, the fake lawn could need to be replaced. And how much will it cost to roll away and roll out another 12 athletic courts and four baseball fields’ worth of plastic grass? Where is the “resilient vision” there? The Master Plan says it will increase the meadow habitat at FDR by 10.8 acres from zero acres. This is plainly incorrect. The Master Plan should be amended to state that it will bury almost 30 acres of currently existing meadows beneath a layer of plastic.

A habitat that nourishes all visiting creatures

A meadow is an interconnected web of being. The monarch beats its wings to the rhythm of the entire carnival of creatures that has summoned it into being. Our ecosystems are already so fragile: if the Meadows is divided, like so many cut-up squares of carpet, it will be subject to all the consequential unraveling.

Curious about some of the species that have appeared in FDR since the Meadows’ return, I set out on a long walk with Holger Pflicke, an avid birder who has been stalking the area with his binoculars since before the golf course closed in 2019. “The good thing about Philly birding,” Pflicke says, “is there is always a hole in the fence somewhere.” He is one of the many community members who consulted on the design of the Master Plan, but he now wishes that the Meadows could remain. Even in January, suited up in our mittens and hats, we find the place bustling with white-throated sparrows and meowing woodpeckers. Goldfinches pilfer seeds in the boughs of a sweetgum tree as a bald eagle passes overhead.

Among the birds Pflicke has spotted exclusively since the rebirth of the Meadows are: clay-colored sparrows, vesper sparrows, dickcissels, blue grosbeaks, and eastern meadowlarks. “All that growth that came back led to something,” he tells me. More food sources, more habitat, more birds. People will talk about invasives here, he says, but even if phragmites or mugwort are not ideal habitat, “they still provide some habitat.” If you’ve ever noticed the red-winged blackbirds chortling in the phrag, you can attest to this. Today, Pflicke is hoping we can see an orange-crowned warbler, a small songbird that may stop shortly in Philly during the winter on its way to Central America.

A red-winged blackbird at the South Philly Meadows.

If you ask Pflicke what drives him to wake up at dawn to survey the Meadows before work, he’ll tell you about the miracle of migration—wild geese and blackpoll warblers starting up in Canada and flying nonstop all the way to South America. “It’s mind-boggling that those little things can sustain that,” he says. Birds have always been a symbol of resilience and also a puzzle piece with planetary dimensions. We may witness them for only a brief moment, but through these brief intimacies we are stitched into the pattern of the seasons and become attuned to the tilting gyre of the giant planet to which we both belong. Suddenly Pflicke spots the orange-crowned warbler. It’s right there in the shrubbery straight ahead, a greenish-yellow, feathered plumpness with a gray hood. A second one arrives. Two in the same view! 

“And that is only due to the Meadows,” says Pflicke with a kind of joyful pride in his voice. “And that is awesome.”

We are just beginning to discover what the Meadows is and to imagine how it can intersect with our lives. This past year the Philadelphia School brought all of their fourth and fifth graders to the Meadows once a week to carry out “mini-expeditions” and do hands-on science education. After a late January blizzard, the Sierra Club led a snowshoeing hike and passed an impromptu ice hockey game along the frozen creek bed. I myself have led walks for people who have lost loved ones and are navigating mental illness. The Meadows is not just a space where birds and bugs are nourished; it nourishes us all. If the Master Plan escapes amendment, if the inertia is just too great, and the frozen-in-time community of 2019, who never met the Meadows, is the only community whose input matters, then perhaps that is all that we will ever be able to say. For a miraculous moment we were awestruck, and in our brief encounter, we felt our place on Earth.

But I, for one, am not ready to give up or to say goodbye. Are you?

Visitors enjoy the trails around South Philly Meadows.

A version of this story first ran in The Philadelphia Citizen.

5 Comments

  1. This is a truly fantastic article, Anisa. The only thing I take issue with is the claim that of a”well-vetted plan, a plan that went through rigorous community outreach meetings”. Some uncomfortable questions are being raised about the transparency of that community engagement process, and how/whether or not the Master Plan actually aligns with the wishes people expressed back in 2018. Nevermind all that you mention here, and how our sense of public space has changed in wake of the pandemic.

  2. It seems that we can always feel the need to fill empty spaces. Perhaps it’s because we think nothing is happening in a field of grass. But we don’t realize how much is actually happening in the field that benefits the environment and, therefore, benefits all of us.

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