Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

August 16–23, 2001

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Splendor in the Grass

Neighbors, city and the Children’s Hospital come together to rehab a drug-infested eyesore.

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X Marks the Spot: A stone marker welcomes neighbors back.

photo: Daryl Gale

Last Thursday’s dedication of a park in West Philly was something a little out of the ordinary. There were children squealing with delight as they made full and raucous use of the brand new playground and tot lot, older folks fanning themselves on new benches and sipping water from paper cups, and dozens of residents gathered in the pavilion listening to a jazz combo as hot as the summer night. None of which is out of the ordinary, unless you saw the park a few years ago.

The newly dedicated Malcolm X Park was called Black Oak Park until 1995. It sits on the square block from 51st to 52nd Streets, from Pine to Larchwood. But the name change didn’t do much to change the condition of the park itself. It was overgrown and choked with weeds, and had become a gathering place for drug pushers, prostitutes and the community’s various ne’er-do-wells. That all changed thanks to the tireless work of a few community volunteers who saw great potential in this neglected patch of dirt and trees.

"It was bad," says Gregorio Pac Cojulun, President of the group Friends of Malcolm X Park. "Drugs and prostitutes everywhere, broken 40 bottles and all the dog poop you could step in. At least, I think it was dog poop. There were even a few bodies found in the park. The cops tried, but they were outnumbered and overwhelmed, I think."

It wasn’t always like that. According to Cojulun, a retired state employee who has lived across the street from the park for 40 years, Black Oak Park was a wonderful place in the ’60s and ’70s. Kids played on the swings while dutiful parents sat watching old folks played regular pinochle games, and chess players used the park as the site of a weekly tournament. That slowly changed, says Cojulun, when crack became the neighborhood drug of choice.

"Next thing anyone knew, people were scared to even go in the park, let alone sit there and enjoy the sunshine. The park went from a community asset to an eyesore in just a few years."

Cojulun says that a dedicated block captain came up with an idea for revitalizing the park, but passed away before she could implement her plan. That’s when other neighbors formed the Friends of Malcolm X Park and went about trying to get the plan off the ground. Fortunately for them, they found an immediate ally in their city councilwoman, Jannie Blackwell.

"When Jannie got involved, things started to happen," Cojulun says. "She got a friend of hers to write proposals and the next thing we knew, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia came through with a check for $200,000. We were ecstatic, and went right to work."

They cut dead trees, re-routed the walk paths, built the new playground and tot lot, and put in the new benches and lighted pavilion, all on a volunteer basis. Cojulun says he has no idea how many volunteers showed up, but the sight of them brought a tear to his eye.

At the park’s dedication last Thursday, as jazz saxophonist Glenn Bryant and his quartet wail through a their first set on this humid night, a smiling Councilwoman Blackwell shows up. She’s greeted by many hugs and handshakes from grateful neighbors for her role in revitalizing the park, but despite the hero’s welcome, gives the credit to Cojulun and his group, and the neighbors.

"The rededication of this park is a tribute to the fact that when neighbors get together, they can do what they want," Blackwell gushes. "Vision and leadership are more important than money or status, and this proves it. Children’s Hospital has already committed to have it’s annual festival here, and there will be many more concerts and activities throughout the summer and fall."

While the park is a vast improvement over what it used to be, Cojulun says this is only Phase I.

"Next Friday we’re going to reseed the entire park, and then we’re building new bathrooms, water fountains and a new walkway around the park perimeter. We’re forming new partnerships, and trying to raise more money to really get the job done right. The cops have a much better handle on crime now."

Capt. Linda MacLachlin has been the 18th District Commander since 1999, and has worked closely with the neighbors in getting the bad guys out, so the good guys will come back.

"We want people to feel secure using the facilities they worked so hard for," MacLachlin says, "if the neighbors don’t feel the park is safe, they won’t let their kids play there. "

MacLachlin says that her officers patrol the park on foot and on bicycles, and patrol cars regularly circle the perimeter. And so far, it’s working.

"This park is cleaner, safer and more inviting than it has been in many years," Greg Cojulun beams. "And even though we still have a little more work to do, I think it’s already a big success. We’re just trying to give the park back to the community."

Cojulun then walks away smiling and bobbing his head to the beat of Glenn Bryant’s smoking jazz combo; past the kids playing on the slide, and past the old folks who are just happy to be able to sit in the park again.

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