Hill's pocket parks are hidden gems

Andres Restrepo and his daughter Hannah enjoy visiting the Peace Park. (Photo by Barbara Sheehan)

Thanks to the foresight of civic-minded Philadelphians who came before us, we have many choices of parks within walking distance for residents in the 19118 zip code.  There is Pastorius Park, popular with dogs and their owners, and the Water Tower Recreation Center, which hosts many indoor and outdoor recreational activities such as gymnastics, basketball, baseball, softball, picket ball, and tennis. And, of course, there is the beautiful natural asset that is the Wissahickon, with miles of trails to explore and enjoy.

However, it is worthwhile to take notice of some of the smaller “pocket parks” that are sometimes taken for granted. The east side of lower Chestnut Hill is home to three pocket parks worthy of a visit: Buckley Park, the Peace Park and Winston Park.

Buckley Park

 “In the crowded portion of the city, where people can, in many cases, ill-afford the cost of excursions into the country or even to the suburbs, the need of such places is preemptory.” -- From the 1904 Annual Report of the City Parks Association of Philadelphia, a civic organization formed in 1888  for “the purpose of obtaining for the benefit of the community park and resting places for adults and playgrounds for the children.”

A view of a memorial plaque in Buckley Park. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

Chestnut Hill should qualify as a dense neighborhood. According to data derived from the U.S. Census, as of 2016, the population in 19118 was 9,808, or 3,075 people per square mile.  Of the 4,397 of housing units, 48% are renter-occupied housing.  While not as crowded as other city neighborhoods, many residents do not have private properties boasting generous yards and still need public open spaces for relaxation and recreation.

Because it is in an area with a high amount of foot traffic, the most well-known of these parks is Buckley Park, located at the corner of Hartwell Lane and Germantown Avenue.  Dedicated in 1973, it honors the memory of neighborhood resident PFC Charles J. Buckley, a Marine who died in 1968, and “other Americans who gave their lives in the Republic of Vietnam.”  This park is well maintained by the local VFW and boasts features such as antique gas-style lampposts with electric lighting (donated by Chestnut Hill Village Apartments), a gravel path from the Avenue to the Hartwell, and six wooden benches looking out over an enclosed garden area.

Visitors to this park often enjoy take out from El Poquito, Kings Garden, or the Chestnut Grill, or to finish their ice cream cones from Bredenbeck's. You might pass someone taking a nap on one of the benches, or staff from the local restaurants taking a coffee or cigarette break.  The park is a popular site for musical performances during the two major Chestnut Hill Spring and Fall festivals, as well as occasional buskers or pop-up events. It is currently decorated with American flags in honor of Independence Day.

Peace Park

 “The city is daily growing in size and increasing in population, and where in some few cases the creation of the parks and playgrounds might seem at present superfluous, a very short time will demonstrate the wisdom of such provision.”  -- 1904 Annual Report of the City Parks Association of Philadelphia

The Yeakel log cabin (1900) at Mermaid Lane and Germantown Avenue was torn down in 1911 (At that time, it was the oldest standing house in Chestnut Hill). Photo courtesy of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.

Across from the World War I memorial, at the corner of Mermaid Lane and Germantown Avenue, sits the Peace Park honoring Johanna Sigmund, a Chestnut Hill resident who died as a result of the 9/11 World Trade Center Attacks.  This little triangle park was most recently dedicated in 2019 and serves as a “gateway” or welcoming entrance to the Chestnut Hill. It is very well maintained by donated services from Burke Brothers, and was sponsored by a handful of local organizations: the Chestnut Hill Garden District, the Chestnut Hill Business District, and the Rotary Club of Chestnut Hill, as well as an international organization, the IIPT Global Peace Park Project, that originated in Vancouver, Canada. 

On a recent Sunday morning, Andres Restrepo and his daughter Hannah perused the park looking for insects, flowers, and birds.

“We love these little parks,” said Restrepo, a lawyer with the Sierra Club, who recently moved to the neighborhood from Mt. Airy.  He finds the size to be just right for exploring with a two-year-old. Later that morning, visitors included a young couple who held their socially distant conversation at the picnic table and a mother comforting a crying toddler on an adjacent bench. 

On Wednesday evenings, Pitruco Pizza parks its truck across the street. Pitruco's takes orders online and has the pies ready for pick up at the between 5 and 8 p.m.  Last Wednesday, a family of four parked their bikes and enjoyed their takeout order in the Peace Park. The pizza is reported to be “delicious.”

Winston Park

Aerial view of Winston Park.

“Throughout the city there are a number of small triangular pieces of ground which have been, in the words of ordinances, “thrown into the intersection.” It is usually intended that these shall be paved, thus creating a dreary extent of asphalt or other paving…If each grassplot is attended to once a week during the summer, that would be sufficient.” -- 1904 Annual Report of the City Parks Association of Philadelphia

Winston Park consists of three such “triangular grassplots,” adjacent to the corner of Willow Grove Avenue and Winston Road.  The park is owned by the city’s Department of Public Property, but is one of over 300 neighborhood parks, recreations centers, and playgrounds that are maintained by the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation. 

“Fairmount Park does the mowing and tree maintenance,” said Winston Road resident Bob Previdi, “and the neighbors do the rest.”

Previdi, a transportation consultant, has organized annual neighborhood gatherings at the park since his family first moved here in 2003. 

“The neighbors told me that the previous owner used to organize neighborhood picnics in the park,” he explains, “so I figured I could do that too.” The gatherings include bands, a bounce castle, and barbeque and picnic food brought together by all the neighbors. Winton Road is blocked off so kids can ride their bikes on the street.

Previdi says he would like to make some improvements such as fixing the Winston Park sign and the “alley light” near Willow Grove Avenue.  He plans to tackle this himself, rather than lobby the city to do it.

“I will not ask the city to fix it,” he said, “They’ve got enough going on without worrying about these things.”

Winston Road neighbor Susan Cole, a retired United Methodist Minister, loves living across from the park.  She and her husband Hal Taussig, also a retired United Methodist Minister, have lived on Winston Road for 26 years. 

“In that time, we have had three dogs,” Cole said. “We use the park all the time for evening walks and to chat with neighbors.” 

She thinks of the park as a kind of the neighborhood front yard and she often watches the activities in the park from her second-floor window.

Cole takes note of the variety of trees in the park, a cove of pine trees, two sweetgum trees, the kind that produce the little prickly seed pods, and the favorite of small children, two magnolia trees at the corner closest to Willow Grove and Winston Road. 

“For years I thought they were the same tree,” said Cole, as she noticed that one side blooms earlier than the other side. “When I paid more attention, I saw that they are really two trees that are intertwined together.”

 These trees are popular for young children who want to climb, as the large branches hang low enough for them to tackle by themselves.

With lots of old-growth trees, the park is well shaded, offers several comfortable benches with stone supports and wooden slats, and has a more organic feel than the other two parks previously mentioned. All three, however, are good places to take a breath, relax, and reflect during this time of quarantine, when all are advised to stay close to home. 

The National Geography Society defines an ecosystem as “a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, work together to form a bubble of life.”  A respite in one of our valued local parks could help us to make the most of our living in the bubble.

Who is the Winston in Winston Rd.?

While researching pocket parks in Chestnut Hill, reporter Barbara Sheehan wondered--for whom was Winston Park named?   It seems logical that the Park was named after the road, since it borders Winston Road.  She asked Alex Bartlett, archivist at the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, who replied, “that question has come up ‘here and there’ over the years and I have yet to find an answer.”

A bit more digging showed that a John C. Winston formed a successful publishing business in Philadelphia in 1884, which lasted through the 20th Century until it was bought out in 1960.  The John C. Winston Publishing Company was most known for publishing an international series of nearly 600 versions of the Bible.  There is even an historic building on Arch Street that still carries the Winston name on the building’s east wall.

John C. Winston died in 1920.  Winston Road, according to the PA Historical Society database, was named in 1923.  Alex Bartlett dug up a record for Mr. Winston in the 1920 Census data and found that he lived in Germantown in the year of his death and in 1910 as well.

Lastly, the Report of the City Parks Association of Philadelphia from 1906 includes a Mrs. John C. Winston in a list of active members.

So were Winston Road and Winston Park named after John C. Winston?   We need more clues. If you can provide some, please contact Barbara Sheehan at barbshee@gmail.com.

Barbara Sheehan is a Chestnut Hill resident who works as a Senior Grants Management Specialist at a cancer research center.