Cliff Park: A Welcoming Gateway to Chestnut Hill

by Barbara Sheehan
Posted 8/11/21

New lighting, landscaping at the lower entrance to Chestnut Hill.

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Cliff Park: A Welcoming Gateway to Chestnut Hill

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 Last Thursday evening, about 60 area residents helped dedicate a new and improved Cliff Park at the corner of Cresheim Valley Drive and Germantown Avenue.   The celebration boasted a cornucopia of refreshments, including flutes of champagne, and was decorated with tiki torches, high tables, and an arc of chairs for the audience.  Mount Airy musician Miles Thompson provided guitar accompaniment, sometimes entertaining the crowd with song covers by James Taylor and Willie Nelson.

As the sun began to set, people lit sparklers with the flames from the tiki torches.  The highlight of the event occurred after dusk, when Philip Dawson, Executive Director of the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District (BID), flipped the switch to reveal the several swathes of light, designed by Nightfall Landscape Lighting, that draw attention to new signage, plantings, and to the varied textures of the Wissahickon Schist that makes up the cliffs bordering the park.  To add even more sparkle, an impressive display of ground fireworks was set off, eliciting oohs and aahs from the crowd, and accompanied by applause.

Speakers included Dawson, who, when he started the job in 2017, was asked what improvements he thought needed to be made to the commercial district.  The plot of land at the corner of Germantown and Cresheim Valley Drive was one of his first suggestions.

 “With no lighting, a small rotting wooden sign, and a small garden bed,” said Dawson, “it was not a fitting entry point to Philadelphia’s Garden District, and the beloved main street that extends up the Hill.”

 Many individuals and groups contributed to the beautification of the space, with efforts coordinated by the BID, which is funded by annual assessments on approximately 300 rental and commercial properties in and around Germantown Avenue.

The flowers and other plantings were provided by the Chestnut Hill Garden District, a nonprofit group made up about 50 volunteers, whose mission is to improve the physical appearance of Chestnut Hill. 

Many donors contributed financially to the project; Dawson especially noted Richard Snowden of Bowman Properties, who donated in his honor of his mother Juliana Snowden and General Manager Virginia Wilmsen.

Emily Daeschler, President of the Chestnut Hill Garden District, also addressed the crowd. “Each year,” she said, “we quietly set to work to give all of you barrels full of flowers on our street corners, hanging baskets on our lamp posts, and many of the colorful window boxes that grace Germantown Avenue and parts of Bethlehem Pike and Evergreen Avenue.”

Garden District volunteers and staff also provide for the upkeep and maintenance of the two other pocket parks at the bottom of the Hill, the Peace Park and the War Memorial.  Daeschler thanked Burke Brothers Landscaping, the Pennsylvania Turf Company, the Wissahickon Garden Club, and the Chestnut Hill Rotary, among other contributors.

Cliff Park, like most of the area pocket parks, is owned by the City of Philadelphia.  The Department of Parks and Recreation provides lawn mowing and basic tree maintenance on the properties, and then leaves any additional landscaping and furnishings up to local residents and community groups.

The nearest local residents to Cliff Park are the Jackson family, who were very supportive of the project.  They live in the house at the top of the cliff, which is connected to the park by a very long, steep, and narrow set of stone stairs. These stairs are rarely used, but connect the property historically to the house, where it was the original access point to the residence on Germantown Avenue.

Dawson, who has a Masters Degree in urban planning, noted the value of an effective gateway to the community.  “Gateways are important spaces that mark the transition from one area to another,” he told the crowd that night. “They welcome visitors with a statement, they give a first impression, and they can do all of these things well or poorly.”  Dawson thanked all those who contributed to the improvement of the southern gateway to the Hill, and informed the crowd that there will be more to come.

The BID has already started working on Mermaid Park, located directly across the street. Plans include adding lighting, seating areas, and games for families to enjoy.   Dawson is also working on funding the Cresheim Valley Trail and collaborating with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project, which, he said, “will result in an artistic gateway with public access points at the old rail trestle across the Drive.”

Exciting plans for improvement of outdoor options in our community!  In a report on gateway design, a planning group from CalPoly (California Polytechnic State University) referred to the historical significance of city gateways. In the pre-industrial area, the report said,  “Gateways were located at strategic edges, attracting monarchs, peasants and people of all classes and occupations for a variety of different activities, political negotiation, commerce, and ceremony, connecting different worlds and demographics.”  Thursday night’s gathering at Cliff Park was just the beginning of such communal events.

The lighting ceremony provided an opportunity to celebrate during a time when festive gatherings have been sparse.  

Garden District

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