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Photo: Philadelphia Parks & Recreation
Photo: Philadelphia Parks & Recreation

Norris Square Park breaks ground on new playground

The $669,000 project will honor the neighborhood’s deep Puerto Rican roots with a new basketball court and more.

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On Monday, May 23, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation joined city and state officials to break ground on a construction site: a new playground at Kensington’s Norris Square Park.

The project’s estimated cost is $669,000 and will be just the first phase of renovations for the newly-envisioned park.

The North Philadelphia park serves a variety of community needs. It is used as a public gathering space, for sports and outdoor recreation, and as a safe playground for children. The nearby Norris Square Community Alliance and Norris Square Neighborhood Project also often host farm stands, movie nights, theatrical performances and workshops in the big park.

In coordination with the Office of Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, the architecture company Marvel, was brought on by Philadelphia Parks & Rec to improve specific areas of the park, such as the basketball court and the playground.

To do the job justice, Marvel first set out to understand how the space is being used within the community and take notes from community members on what they would like to see improved.

“We’re setting up a vision that they can take with them and use as the framework for the future development of the park,” Marvel Partner Yadiel Rivera-Díaz said in a statement. 

The Marvel team also looked to the community for inspiration when creating designs for new surfaces and structures. 

Because the neighborhood has a dense Latino and Puerto Rican population, the park will have a mosaic featuring Taíno symbols, an elm tree with a Puerto Rican flag painted on top, which also matches the color palette chosen for the new playground and basketball court. 

A recent historical account of the park from Kensington Voice harkened back to the 1920s, when the survival of Norris Square Park depended upon the economic success of the industrial neighborhood. When mass-produced goods entered the U.S. market, Kensington-area businesses struggled to compete as goods were priced cheaper. 

When the mills and factories closed in the late 20th century, the local economy and the park began to deteriorate, and the neighborhood struggled to cope with the job opportunity losses. 

This led some residents to move elsewhere for work around the 1970s, and then migrants from the South and Puerto Rico began settling due to the affordable housing. But as the population grew, less jobs became available, and the neighborhood’s problems worsened. 

Multiple studies have demonstrated the connection between poverty and chronic unemployment with substance use. In 2017, the International Journal of Drug Policy found that recessions and joblessness increase mental stress which increases the use of substances such as alcohol and illicit drugs. 

This has been a devastating issue in Kensington, which is currently the epicenter of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis. 

In 2021, the city’s health department confirmed that 639 Philly residents died of a drug overdose between January and June. And during the first six months of 2020, there were 582 reported drug overdose deaths. 

Despite this ongoing crisis, the Norris Square community did come together to beautify its park space. In the 1990s, the Norris Square Neighborhood Project worked with Group Motivos and Philadelphia Green and transformed the area into an award-winning public park. 

This united community effort continues today, as neighbors volunteer weekly to clean up trash on the weekends. Youth volunteers also do their part by sweeping away debris and planting flowers. 

In urban areas, green spaces are an essential organ for a healthy community. For instance, parks provide a space for youth to safely socialize, children can safely play in the park, and these are all experiences that give structure to a growing person’s life. 

Parks are also great spaces for exercising, dog walking, or just relaxing in nature. They are a safe haven for all community members. 

“This groundbreaking is the first phase of new upgrades to transform Norris Square Park into an intergenerational culturally inclusive plaza,” Quiñones Sánchez wrote in a tweet on Tuesday, May 24. 

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