Each weekend, hoards of foot traffic travel through West Philadelphia’s historic Clark Park. The markets, playgrounds, and chess tables scattered throughout the field give all who visit a blissful Saturday morning experience. In addition to its precious green space, Clark Park has served a vital role in the community since its founding in 1895. It has remained a consistent gathering place in the area, even as the surrounding community continues to change.
Though the park seems to be an unwavering presence in the neighborhood, its maintenance requires the labor and dedication of a volunteer board named the Friends of Clark Park. The board’s president, Andrew Bowers, spoke to me about the Friends’ mission, community outreach strategies, and the future of the park. The politics of the park can be difficult to navigate, but the Friends prioritize the community’s needs, sending out surveys that ask, “What do you use the park for? What do you come to the park to do? And “What do you think needs to be included in the park?” Additionally, the surveys collect a range of demographic information to ensure that all members of the community have their voices heard. Overwhelmingly, the responses advocate for a permanent public bathroom in the park, rather than the porta–potties stationed there.
The survey information will inform a new master plan for the park, following the Friends’ strategic plan published in 2020 which laid out the Friends’ short–term goals for strengthening the relationship between the park and the community. The master plan will detail specific improvement projects to the park which, upon approval, will receive full funding from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. The plan will also influence the future of programming and events at the park, which will directly engage with and be enacted by community members. While master plans are typically developed by the City Parks and Recreation Department, the Friends of Clark Park have been entrusted in creating one themselves. The Friends are uniting with other local organizations and residents to develop the master plan, and will later create more surveys and host open meetings to further inform the planning process. The collaboration employed in developing the master plan will ensure that the park remains a space dedicated to the West Philadelphia community. While the Friends demonstrate democratic leadership over the park, Bowers explains that they are a non–political entity whose goals concern the maintenance and improvement of the park.
For the community, however, the park is a deeply political place that serves as a platform for action, unity, and resistance.
I visit the park on a sunny October Saturday, the beautiful weather making the good mood of the neighborhood palpable. I cross 43rd Street, passing the farmer’s market that hosts 13 weekly vendors along with a range of rotating stands. This day in the park features the final Uhuru Flea Market of the season, led by the African People’s Education and Defense Fund. The APEDF fights to defend the human and civil rights of the African community by addressing disparities in education, health, and economic prosperity through community–based solutions. The Uhuru Flea Market helps to spread the organization's values of community empowerment and African liberation.
Activists from a range of organizations also roam the park, striking up conversations and spreading the word about their cause. A representative from the People’s Emergency Center approaches me, asking for a contribution to provide meals and coats for West Philadelphia families. We exchange laughter, thanks, and well–wishes for the Phillies before we continue on our own journeys through the park.
As I wander the path, I pass a chef serving plates of curry and jerk chicken, five–cheese macaroni, and collard greens. A woman gives massages to patrons face–down on a table in the middle of the park. Stalls filled with handmade clothing and jewelry, wafting incense, vinyl records, and personal artworks are lined up by the dozens. A large tent is set up for the African People’s Socialist Party’s book sale, sharing literature about the movement’s history and goals. All around me people are fighting for change through kind and caring interactions with their neighbors. Each vendor is open to sharing their knowledge and experience, educating the community and urging them to be allies. I learn of ongoing struggles for justice that have been happening blocks away from me, and I meet the individuals fighting for change.
After walking through the market, I sit on a bench overlooking the enormous crater that characterizes half of the park. Dogs and children play while their parents watch from picnic blankets, some sipping coffee, others chatting with friends. As the afternoon festivities continue, a thundering drum beat approaches from the west side of the park. Heads turn to see the leaders of the Peoplehood Parade march into Clark Park, marking the end of their route from the Paul Robeson House. The parade has taken place for the past 22 years, led by local activist organization Spiral Q, and joined by a range of community initiatives and groups. The groups follow the established parade route before reaching Clark Park where they put on a pageant illuminating the issues affecting the community that the parade works to bring attention to.
The performance begins with words from Spiral Q leaders, reminding the audience that “Peoplehood is an interactive and participatory experience,” and calling on them to join the Rise Choir Collective in singing “When the World is Sick.” The crowd and choir sing in unison, with audience members swaying and waving their arms.
Featured in the pageant are the enormous hand drawn puppets crafted and carried by parade participants, ranging from drawings of rowhouses to flower bouquets. Residents of the University City Townhomes are represented in detailed paintings held high above the marching crowd. The ongoing fight to ensure their right to housing remains a crucial issue in the West Philadelphia community. The props are used to recreate the scenes of struggle that play out across Philadelphia, including gentrification, land development, and displacement. Children visiting the park are recruited into the pageant, running around dressed as houses to represent a crowded urban neighborhood.
Community members also speak between the pageant segments, illuminating their personal experiences with the hardships presented in the performances. Speakers read poetry, express their appreciation for the community’s presence, and share profound messages of resistance. The presentation is followed by a land acknowledgement of the Lenape people who historically inhabited the Philadelphia area. Finally, Spiral Q Co-Director Jennifer Turnbull asks audience members to join in a healing and reconciliation dance that she choreographed herself to celebrate Peoplehood and turn the park into a community dance party. “All power to all people, all voices, all hands, all hearts,” Turnbull announces, then begins to perform the dance as drums rumble accompaniment.
When asked what the Peoplehood Parade is seeking to achieve, Turnbull responds, “We’re utilizing the power of art to communicate. We’re actively and consciously building the world we want to see.” Just as the Friends of Clark Park are stewards of the communal green space, the Peoplehood Parade seeks to be a steward of the community, condemning the forces that have distressed the neighborhood for decades. Turnbull explains that the purpose of the puppets and pageant is to “tell stories through art and performance,” a medium that helps to capture the emotion and intimacy of the issues. The focus of the 2022 Peoplehood Parade is to highlight community members impacted by land injustice and displacement, as well as calling attention to people's rights to bodily autonomy that are on the ballot this November.
My morning in Clark Park welcomed me into the West Philadelphia community, allowing me to share in their celebrations and struggles. The day’s festivities showed that the park is a stage for social change, from demonstrations drawing large crowds, to passing conversations with people willing to share their stories. The community is devoted to Clark Park, with dedicated members ensuring its maintenance and improvement, and others filling its grassy fields to educate their neighbors and urge them to work towards a more just city.