How the Penn St. Pop Up Park Showed Us That Green Isn’t Always The Answer to Urban Redevelopment
(and that sometimes the answer looks like big mounds of brown dirt)

Five months after it opened, the Penn Street Pop Up Park closed.

The blighted lot on 924–28 Penn Street served as a cut-through for many elementary school students and neighbors, a dumping ground full of needles & mattresses and, covered by the security of blight and darkness, a site for other unsavory behavior.

When the Pop Up Park opened in mid August 2016, it had brought together community residents, business owners and school staff and students who worked together to transform the lot into an active, clear and specialized park space that was the pride of many community members and had the potential to be a successful visitor destination. It included two dirt bicycle tracks, “pump tracks,” community gardens and park-style sitting spaces.

The park wasn’t perfect. On most days you’d find some litter, despite frequent volunteer clean ups, and every so often the quintessential city drunk ambling around (no different than most other downtown spaces). Once some kids broke one of the picnic tables. It’s biggest hindrance to success, though, wasn’t a few pieces of trash or some bored teens, but rather the City Administration’s lack of support motivated (in part) by its lack of understanding, or at least appreciation, of nontraditional, successful redevelopment:

Didn’t we realize that tourists were going to have to look at big piles of dirt from Penn Street, the city’s main corridor? Didn’t we realize that the native ivies planted in the middle of the tracks look like weeds and that the flowerbeds created by local elementary students didn’t look, well, very tidy? And there’s no grass!

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and grass isn’t always greener… Or always the answer to fixing blight, attracting tourists and successful redevelopment.

Grass alone doesn’t measure success, if you measure success by vitality and life, and a space that meets multiple needs both by the City and its residents.

And this space did that.

In a city attempting to market itself as a bicycle-friendly destination, it is precisely those mounds of dirt that could have attracted even more tourists (the pump tracks were the city’s only outdoor bicycle recreational facility).

It served as a safe space for both kids and adults to ride their bicycles; it served as a community garden space; it served as an outdoor classroom for school students and teachers; it served as the cut-through of a long block for school commutes; it served as a way for neighbors to rally together and as a source of community pride. Come this summer, it would have served as an outdoor café space for the neighboring restaurant, and who knows what other possibilities.

And, it served the City by redeveloping one of its many, many blighted lots — at just about no cost to an officially financially-distressed City — into all of those things, for much less than it would cost to demolish or rebuild a structure.

The success of this project, and why it cannot simply “be relocated (as flippantly ‘promised’ by the Mayor at a City Hall meeting and the Managing Director in local media coverage)” lies exactly in its location. They just don’t get it.

The space is bordered by a mixture of uses: on one corner is the intersection of Cherry and Orange, a vibrant piece of neighborhood stoop-community; another is the 10th and Penn Elementary School; next door is a popular local restaurant; the Reading Bike Hub is just down the block; the Hub’s core crew members live within surrounding blocks.

The corner of stoops, and their single street basketball net, is filled with more vitality and life on any given summer night than you might find in the stretches of empty green across City Park (save for a few nights in which it hosts events, and maybe even then…). The Pop Up Park was an extension of that vitality and life.

The ‘eyes on the street’ provided by all this neighborhood activity are exactly the reason why this park was safe for kids to play in, as compared to the often-isolated and underused stretches of other city park spaces, which host no parents or project volunteers or teachers just yards away at most any given moment in time; paid staff may monitor those other spaces sometimes, but those staff, for the most part, go home in the evenings and weekend. The parents and Hub crew members living around the Pop Up Park neighborhood do not leave to go home, because they are already home.

The parents of the south side felt comfortable sending their kids to the tracks because chances are if something happens another adult, whom they likely know to some degree, will be around to keep an informal look out. Once kids ran to the Shop when two intoxicated men were lingering. The shop manager shooed them off, and called the police when necessary; if you’ve ever been to some of the fringe spaces of empty green throughout and bordering the city then you don’t need to be an expert in city planning to tell me how this scene may have gone differently.

I have sat through many meetings in which I’ve heard the almost-rally-cry of frustrated leaders in everything from social services to economic revitalization: “We just can’t get parents involved. Residents don’t care. There’s too high a rate of transiency! Redevelopment is too expensive.” This project proved that residents do care, that parents are willing to be involved, that redevelopment of a blighted space doesn’t always have to take a million dollar investment.

It can be done, and we did it. With dirt. (And, no, we didn’t plant any grass.)

This intentional use of outdoor space, with a specific purpose of riding bicycles, built right in a neighborhood rich with trust networks, partly organic and partly reinforced by Reading Bike Hub and the Elementary School, in a space surrounded by mixed uses, like business and residential, is the stuff that good redevelopment is made of.

The City of Reading and its people are losing out by this closure. They’re losing the successful redevelopment of a blighted lot; they’re losing a potential tourist attraction; and — probably more importantly — they’re losing something that met multiple physical and emotional needs of city residents.