History in the Making

Activist scholar documents, and helps defend, West Philadelphia neighborhood


Patrick Grossi stands in front of the Philip B. Lindy House on Drexel University’s campus. Where he works to preserve history and increase political voice.

Patrick Grossi wields an unusual tool to help solve social problems: history.

The 33-year-old doctoral student of Temple University’s History program specializes in what he calls Public History, explaining that it goes beyond the “walls of academia.”

His interest in history led him to one of  West Philadelphia’s most hotly contested neighborhoods: Mantua, in West Philadelphia. Grossi has studied the neighborhood’s history, from its beginnings as what he describes as a “speculative real estate venture, a peripheral suburb almost,” in the mid-19th century, to its importance as one of Philadelphia’s predominantly black neighborhoods nearly a century later.

What happens next, he says, still resonates with Mantuans today.

“Longtime residents have a memory of what happened in the 1960s, when all three major universities were orchestrating expansion projects,” Grossi says. “UPenn gets the most heat because they did displace a lot of residents from the Black Bottom neighborhood, where University City is now.”

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Lost and Found

When he’s not working with the Fairmount Civic Association, Sam Holloschutz picks up trash at the wooded area near his apartment. | Photo by Stephen Dyer

A popular TV show awakens an environmentalist in Fairmount

Sam Holloschutz credits an unlikely source of inspiration for his devotion to sustainability: the TV show Lost. “Just seeing how beautiful Hawaii is made it click.” Suddenly, he became acutely aware of the beauty of nature, and simultaneously the effect human life has on the planet.

Holloschutz is a Fairmount resident and former Temple University graduate with a degree in real estate and marketing. In 2013, he joined the Neighborhood Improvement Committee of the Fairmount Civic Association, a nonprofit community development organization.

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Second Shift

Kathleen Harple says volunteering at Greensgrow gives her a break from the “craziness of life.” | Photo by Stephen Dyer

North Philadelphia nurse heals herself in the nursery

Three years ago, Kathleen Harple and her dog, Fenway, went for a walk around Kensington and discovered the bustling Greensgrow Farms. At first, she was just a customer, but she soon saw the farm as “an anchor in the neighborhood” and wanted to a volunteer. A full-time nurse, Harple, credits volunteering at Greensgrow as a break from the “hustle of the city and the craziness of life.”

“My blood pressure goes down 10 points when I walk through the gate,” she says. “The people at the farm are some of the best people with whom I’ve worked in my life. I learn from them, laugh with them, and I’ve even cried with them.”

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Farmhand Handyman

Volunteer and grant writer brings many skills to East Kensington’s Emerald Street Urban Farm

Bryan Thompsonowak says volunteering at the Emerald Street Urban Farm has made him more invested in the neighborhood. | Photos by Jared Gruenwald

When Bryan Thompsonowak, 37, was young, his father, a bricklayer and “all-around handyman-type of a guy,” taught him to not be afraid of trying new things. He applied that lesson when he tackled the construction of a three-bin compost system and a rainwater catchment system at Emerald Street Urban Farm in East Kensington.

The farm's managers Nic and Elisa Esposito needed to expand their volunteer base because they were expecting their first child. That's when Thompsonowak stepped up, volunteering on Mondays from May to October.

“It’s nice to have a project close to home, and it’s not just the work; it’s the people that you’re there volunteering with,” says Thompsonowak, whose last name is a result of combining his and his wife Sharon Nowak’s last name.

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Lending a Hand

Library activist engages her community
with an award-winning garden

Sheila Washington joined Friends of the Haddington Library after protesting to save it from closure in 2008. | Photo by Jared Gruenwald

On a typical Saturday morning, Sheila Washington can be found in the garden at the Haddington Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, watering flowers and teaching children about caring for plants. The garden opened in 2009 with a few rose bushes to beautify the neighborhood library, seated on top of a hill. As the President of the Friends of the Haddington Library, Washington organized volunteers to revitalize the acre and a quarter of land that the library sits on, and it is now filled with roses, azaleas and lilacs. The garden became the pride of the neighborhood when it was recognized by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society with the Community Greening Honoree Award in 2011.

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Plugged In

Mark McGee organizes electronics recycling events several times a year. | Photo by Megan Matuzak

Mark McGee, Kensington's undisputed electronics recycling champion 

The average American throws away approximately 62 pounds of electronics a year, says Kensington resident Mark McGee, citing a WHYY podcast on electronics waste. “I don’t think people realize there is a lot of toxic stuff out there when they throw a TV away,” McGee says.

McGee helps promote electronics recycling in Kensington, an area he's lived in for over 50 years, through his volunteer work with Sustainable 19125 & 19134. The resident-driven organization was created by the local Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAC) and the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) with the support of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) to promote sustainability, and aims to make the two zip codes the greenest in the city.

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Engaging Personality

Bartram's Garden volunteer Mary Armstrong says the historic site has "something for everybody." | Photo by Dan Murphy

Mary Armstrong expands Bartram's Garden network

Longtime Bartram’s Garden volunteer Mary Armstrong says she especially loves engaging visitors from the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhoods that surround the garden. “I like the fact that you can get people who just stumble in with their bikes, start talking to them, engaging them,” she says. “It’s a place of refuge. It’s important to keep it here—not just as a piece of history, but as a place for people to go.”

Since volunteering in 2009 at Bartram’s as a community ambassador, Armstrong has inspired many to become members of the 45-acre urban oasis and former home to one of America’s first botanists, John Bartram.

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Leader of the 'Pack

Ambler organizer and activist amazes all

Susan Curry, one of the founders of Pennypack Farm, has devoted her life to environmental issues. | Photo by Cheryl Wilks

Susan Curry is known throughout the Philadelphia region as an environmental organizer, perhaps most notably as one of the founders of Pennypack Farm, the first organic CSA-centric farm in Montgomery County. 

In 2000, Curry was part of a group in the Philadelphia area studying voluntary simplicity—in her words, 
"Voluntarily living with very little income by significantly reducing expenses”—through the Northwest Earth Institute, a Portland, Ore., nonprofit that mentors those concerned with environmental issues. When the local group decided to start an organic farm, Curry wrote a letter to the editor of the Ambler Gazette, calling for a meeting at the Trax Café. The group became the founding committee of Pennypack Farm. “Every time we met at Trax Café, I had everyone write what they wanted our values to be," Curry says. “I always wrote ‘bringing like-minded, progressive people together to form a community.'" 

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The Hope Gardener: Volunteer cultivates youth, garden at homeless shelter

photo by Stephen DyerFor 77-year-old Margaret Guthrie, the key to success and longevity is all about perspective. “I still think I’m 18,” she says, laughing. “I wake up and I look in the mirror and I say, ‘Who the hell is that old hag?’ But I stay interested. I’m always curious about something or someone. … If you keep your eyes open to see all that’s going on around you, it’s hard to grow old.” 
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Avant Gardener: Horticulture educator has been a longtime champion for urban gardeners

Doris Stahl, here at the Horticulture Center at the Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, built hundreds of urban gardens around the city. Photo by Dan Murphy.After Doris Stahl’s two sons had moved out of the house in 1985, she was looking for a change. As a professionally trained fine artist and educator, she taught art sporadically at community centers and summer park programs while raising her two sons. But now that they were grown, Stahl wanted something more full-time. An avid home gardener, Stahl was drawn to accept a position as a horticulture educator with Penn State Extension. Little did she know the change she’d instill by bringing the Master Gardener Program to Philadelphia and building hundreds of urban gardens during her 26-year tenure.

The Master Gardener Program, which was established in Seattle in 1972 to meet the demands for urban horticulture and education, provides extensive training to volunteers who then go on to serve their communities through beautification projects, educational workshops, community garden maintenance, and providing gardening advice and education. Penn State adopted the Master Gardener Program in 1982, and implemented it in Pennsylvania counties where farming was already prevalent. But when Stahl came on board three years later, the Master Gardeners were nonexistent in Philadelphia, a city blighted by 33,000 vacant lots and minimal green space. 

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West Philadelphia benefits from volunteer’s inventions, carpentry and expertise

Joe Shapiro poses at The Hamilton Mansion at the Woodlands. Photo by Neal Santos.

A walk around West Philadelphia reveals Joe Shapiro’s handiwork. He built the wooden kiosks in Clark Park, the garden beds at the Walnut Hill Community Farm, the interpretive signs at the Woodlands. He planted trees along the Schuylkill River and Cobbs Creek. And he’s pruned shrubs and bagged trash at Cedar Park. He’s the volunteer that nonprofit directors across University City say they can’t live without.

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John Boyce protects and defends Roxborough’s ‘Central Park’

John Boyce has made it his mission to revitalize Gorgas Park.

If it weren’t for people like Roxborough native and Gorgas Park champion John Boyce, things wouldn’t get done. So says David Bower, the volunteer coordinator of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, who has known Boyce for more than 20 years. “They say the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Well, John is that squeaky wheel, and I mean that in the best sense possible,” he says, laughing.

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Sage Advice: Volunteer closes in on a century of sustainability

Leo Kuehl (pronounced “Keel”) has devoted his entire life to service and sustainability, and at 97 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down. “I don’t believe in wasting assets of any kind,” says Kuehl. “To me, ‘green’ is not just about recycling. ‘Green’ goes anywhere — any place that energy or time is used or consumed — including things like human energy, time, water, electricity, materials and so on.”
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Everyday Hero: Meet “Nature” Jack Marine, Bala Cynwyd’s relentless composter

story by Missy SteinbergEven in december, “Nature” Jack Marine’s Bala Cynwyd home is surrounded by dozens of pumpkins. These former jack-o-lanterns, some of which are as large as 200 pounds, rest in Marine’s seven compost bins, undergoing a natural, three-month metamorphosis. Over time the pumpkins will become organic soil that Marine will use in his home garden to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and yes, more pumpkins.
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