South Philly residents and organizations concluded the 2022 South Philly Neighborhood Summit for 4th to 9th Sts from Mifflin St to Oregon Ave on Saturday, September 17, after two days of celebration, discussion, and work sessions. Residents and organization staff strengthened relationships and committed to next steps for putting neighborhood improvement plans into action, including Our Plan For Our Neighborhood completed in 2022 by a coalition convened by SEAMAAC including Friends of Mifflin Square Park, Greater Philadelphia Community Alliance, Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, and Karen Community of Philadelphia. The Summit was organized by SEAMAAC and Resident Conveners Erme Maula & Rex Yin, in collaboration with HECTOR urban design, with the support of the Harvard Loeb Fellowship Alumni Council.
Friday evening in Mifflin Square Park at 6th and Ritner, six South Philly residents shared stories and lessons learned from growing up in this part of South Philly. Moderated by Resident Convener and CAGP Board Member Rex Yin, storytellers included 7th Street business owner Zak Aslam, Dickinson Square West Board President John Dizzley, SEAMAAC Executive Director Thoai Nguyen, Nacho Perez from the Murphy Rec Center, and ZarZo, who also prepared the Burmese food enjoyed by all. (Stay tuned for a recording of South Philly Stories to be broadcast on Philadelphia Community Access Media.) The event concluded with a dance performance by Modero & Company, whose mission is “preserving the traditional Indonesian culture through dancing, food, events and other experiences for the South Philly’s Indonesian community as well as the greater Philadelphia public.”
On Saturday at Snyder Avenue Congregational Church, following breakfast of pastries and buns from Oregon Ave and an Opening Discussion on the goals and format for the day, attendees took a long coffee break, then broke into two work sessions on Parks & Greening Our Neighborhoods! and Thriving Local Businesses & Safe Streets!
Vietnamese hoagie lunch was served down the block at Whitman Library, followed by two more work sessions on Affordable Housing & Organizing Against Displacement! and Building & Organizing Resident Power!
The Closing Discussion included reports from each session including the following implementation commitments.
Parks & Greening the Neighborhood
- Residents and organizations want to lock in funding to complete reconstruction of Mifflin Square Park according to the “Making Room For Everyone” design, including committed $750,000 from National Parks Service ORLP program and promised one-to-one local match, and potential new funds available from the Parks and Outdoor Recreation Program of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Led by SEAMAAC and Friends of Mifflin Square Park, they will renew communication and advocacy with all involved parties while seeking additional resources to complete the approximately $5 million project.
- Friends of Mifflin Square secured new and extended commitments of support from individual residents and organizations for regular Saturday morning clean ups.
- Loeb Fellow Beth Miller challenged park advocates: “Keep telling the amazing and moving story of your work on Mifflin Square Park to anyone who will listen, and keep challenging philanthropists, elected officials, and civil servants to support your vision with resources. You are showing the whole city and the country how much it means for diverse people to work out and unite behind a design for culturally meaningful rejuvenation of our shared public spaces.”
Thriving Local Businesses & Safe Streets
- SEAMAAC committed to continuing its work on cleaning and making physical improvements along 7th Street.
- A group of residents committed to launch a drive for residents to spend $25 twice a month at neighborhood businesses, which could result in over $8 million in annual revenue, along with a social media campaign to encourage holiday season shopping on 7th Street.
- Loeb Fellow Kennedy Smith challenged organizations: “Find ways to support businesses and the commercial corridor holistically, and not only in ways prescribed by funding programs.” She encouraged the identification of state funding sources for updating facilities such as HVAC systems and grease traps, and long-term planning for preservation of the corridor by learning more about innovative ownership structures like Commercial Community Land Trusts.
Affordable Housing & Organizing Against Displacement
- Greater Philadelphia Community Alliance and SEAMAAC committed to working more closely to support for tenants and homebuyers, by identifying gaps in existing services as well as preventing displacement of residents and their cultures with the shared goals of community ownership and affordability.
- Attendees committed to a resident working group for collecting tools and resources for organizing to prevent displacement and other disruptive effects of gentrification, including examples of informal actions, zoning laws, and advocacy approaches that have been successful in other places, and to work within Registered Community Organizations to prepare and negotiate proposed developments.
- Loeb Fellow Reese Fayde challenged organizations and residents to “This is a special place, and you are ahead of the economic curve and can affect what’s coming. Understand the architecture: there is a story to explain the modest and repetitive building type that dominates. There well may be some opportunities here that are living in plain view.”
Building & Organizing Resident Power
- A group of residents committed to organizing and hosting at least one Neighboring Night in conjunction with Registered Community Organizations and others where people can meet each other and share stories and advice for getting involved in the civic life of the neighborhood, continuing themes from Friday’s South Philly Stories & Performances.
- Loeb Fellow Damon Rich challenged residents and organizations: “Commit to small concrete actions to help hold together organizations, the coalition, and residents, and build understanding of community work that everyone is doing. This could be a regular email update with contributions from across coalition (with a self-maintaining list using Google Groups or Mailchimp) or quarterly occasions for residents to meet neighbors and local organizations.”
Additional community leaders in attendance included State Representative Elizabeth Fiedler, Councilmember Mark Squilla, Seventh Street Community Civic Association President Bruce Baldwin, Dickinson Square West Civic Association President John Dizzley, Greater Philadelphia Community Alliance Chief Operating Officer Francis Carney, along with board members of Lower Moyamensing Civic Association and Whitman Council Inc, as well as Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations Policy Director Andy Toy, and Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia Program Director Somaly Osteen.
At the conclusion of the summit, SEAMAAC Executive Director Thoai Nguyen stated, “Thanks to all participating organizations and residents, the neighborhood summit connected neighbors with each other in ways all too rare in our day and age. SEAMAAC was proud to host and showcase community development work we’ve accomplished with our partners over the last seven years: improving and protecting community gardens on Emily and Mercy Streets, assisting immigrant business owners on South 7th Street, launching the SoPhie food truck, finishing construction of the first phase of reconstructing Mifflin Square Park, completing a full schematic design for the rest of the park, and more. While SEAMAAC serves Philadelphians from all corners of the city, we’re rooted here in South Philly and committed to our neighbors’ ongoing struggle for the living environment we deserve.”
Resident Conveners Erme Maula & Rex Yin remarked, “As residents of this neighborhood, we want to be at the table with people making decisions about where we live, including nonprofit organizations, government, businesses, and real estate developers. People here have been organizing with their neighbors for over 100 years, and we’re not going to stop now. Though we don’t have all the answers, we know that the only way we’ll get them is by linking the powers of organizations and residents.”
SEAMAAC Deputy Director Thi Lam remarked, “SEAMAAC is proud to stand with our sibling organizations with an unwavering commitment to the liberation of South Philadelphians, by both meeting urgent existential needs like food to eat as well as holding space to co-create the future like the neighborhood summit.”
HECTOR urban design partners Jae Shin & Damon Rich said, “HECTOR is honored to have served SEAMAAC, the South Philly community, and the City of Philadelphia since 2016 as lead landscape designer for the reconstruction of Mifflin Square Park and neighborhood planner. In our experience working in cities across the world, we’ve never found a place with better stories, fiercer pride, or more charismatic people and multiplex culture that this slice of South Philly. We look forward to continuing to celebrate its character and sing its praises through architecture and urban design as we construct future phases of work.”
The Harvard Loeb Fellowship Alumni Council awarded a grant to SEAMAAC and partners in recognition of the impactful and promising work of the neighborhood coalition, and the awesome legacy and future of this part of South Philly. Loeb Fellows are accomplished practitioners, influential in shaping the built and natural environment, whose work is advancing positive social outcomes in the US and around the world. In the middle of promising careers they step away from their hectic professional lives for one academic year. Fellows audit classes at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and throughout the vast network of Harvard and MIT. They engage with faculty and students, participate in Fellowship events, and collaborate with their peers. They become part of a powerful growing network of colleagues passionately committed to revitalizing communities. Visiting Loeb Fellows Reese Fayde, Beth Miller, Damon Rich, and Kennedy Smith, national experts in community development and design, exchanged knowledge throughout the summit with local organizational leaders and residents.