Norris Square: A neighborhood built on its fight for existence faces a new challenge
Thirty years ago, Norris Square battled to rid itself of drugs and violence. Now it has another fight with outside investment skyrocketing over the last couple years.
Ask anyone who’s lived in Norris Square for more than 30 years about the park that now bears its name and you’ll more than likely hear it referred to as “El Parque de Las Ardillas” (The Park of Squirrels).
The name comes from a calmer time in the neighborhood’s history, though not one without hardship.
In the 1970s, Norris Square, much like other neighborhoods across Philadelphia that were once industrial bastions, struggled for life. The factories that once employed a majority of the neighborhood’s residents laid dormant, as did the houses of employees who had followed the work out of town.
What remained was a predominantly Puerto Rican community which had first set down roots in the area in the 1950s, living alongside smaller African-American and white populations. The community co-existed in relative peace, but the economic hardship of the time meant prejudice often ran high between the groups.
As an attempt to bring people back to the city, Philadelphia began offering some of its vacant properties for one dollar. This alleviated some of Norris Square’s desolation by bringing more new residents to the neighborhood, but more work opportunities were still needed.
That responsibility fell to the residents, who carved out a existence until the 1980s, when the crack epidemic swept the city. What was once a tough, but rewarding life turned into one defined by danger and addiction.
When Lisa Segarra moved to Norris Square in the mid-1980s with her then one-year-old son, The Park of Squirrels was a far cry from its former self.
“It was a considered a needle park,” she said.
Norris Square Park sat in the middle of what The Philadelphia Inquirer eventually dubbed “The Badlands” — a name that unfortunately still clings to Kensington and its surrounding communities today.
Segarra remembers the park strewn with so much trash, needles and broken glass that she never allowed her son to play there, opting instead to take him outside of the neighborhood for fresh air.
“It was so sad,” she said.
At the time, Philadelphia’s response was to turn what seemed like a blind eye to the conditions.
“We were flagged,” said Segarra, “no trash pick up, no kind of services in the neighborhood. It was abandoned.”
Once again, responsibility for the neighborhood fell to the residents. Borne out of the absence of city services and the struggle to survive, some developed an immense passion for the neighborhood.
Those who came to embody that passion and struggle were a group of women who began to challenge the community’s drug and violence problem under the banner of “Grupo Motivos.”
“They were the ones to say enough is enough,” said Segarra.
The group began by cleaning up Norris Square Park and continued their work to transform six vacant lots into green spaces that remain in the community today.
Slowly, but surely, their work pushed the drugs and violence from the community and inspired others in the neighborhood to invest in the area.
What the city neglected to do was filled by the collective effort of the residents.
Now, 30 years later, the city wants the land it forgot all those years ago, and Norris Square faces yet another challenge to its existence.
Rather than the drugs and violence that defined the ‘80s, a new challenge called “redevelopment” has swept the city over the past couple decades.
After Northern Liberties and Fishtown, Norris Square is the next in line to face the gentrification such development brings.
When longtime resident Eddie moved to Norris Square in 1975, like Grupo Motivos, he took it upon himself to maintain two vacant lots next to his house.
“I always cut the weeds and cleaned,” he said.
To keep trash from being disposed on the lots, Eddie eventually built fences around them and developed a small plot for farming.
“I laugh when I remember the tomatoes and peppers I harvested,” he said.
He did so for 20 years, giving most of his vegetables away to other members in the community.
But it all stopped when the property tax Eddie paid for the lots went up exponentially.
“I went from paying $200 a year to $1,500 over the last two or three years,” he said.
When he could no longer pay the tax, the city designated the two lots for the sheriff’s sale. Eddie's son bought one of the lots, but the other sold to a developer who now has a say over the land’s future, in spite of the past 20 years of Eddie’s work maintaining the property.
“I would keep planting, but I think they’re going to build a house here now,” he said.
Nearby, the same thing is happening to Iris Rodriguez and her husband, Julio. Both have lived in Norris Square for the past 43 years.
“The neighborhood wasn’t great when we got here, but it got better. Now it’s perfect,” said Rodriguez.
Like Eddie, she and her husband have maintained three lots behind their house since they moved to the neighborhood. One, Julio uses as a garden to harvest vegetables that he also gives to the community, while another was used to host birthday parties for children on the block.
“I would much rather have them here and safe than on the street where it was dangerous,” said Julio.
Beyond sharing their backyard with the community, Rodriguez is also the block captain and her work has won multiple awards throughout the years.
The third lot she and her husband kept recently pop up in the sheriff’s sale list. Rodriguez went to the city to fight the ruling, and they were able to get it out of the listing for now.
However, a couple of weeks ago a man claiming to be the new owner appeared. A neighbor told Iris, he offered her to park her car in the lot for $100 a month.
The Rodriguez and Eddie are just two examples of longtime residents facing the brunt of the developer wave breaking over Norris Square.
Segarra says the residents aren’t opposed to the incoming development, but that more compensation should be offered to those who have maintained land in the neighborhood.
“Don’t take what people worked hard for, work some kind of good deal out so that everybody walks away with a smile,” she said.
By not doing so, many are left hurt as they see the history they created being wiped out.
“We’ve been used in this neighborhood,” said Segarra. “We’ve been used to take care of the land that the city didn’t want to clean up and now it wants it back. So where is the justice there?”
This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations, focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org