Two Communities, One Vision

November 1, 2019By: Nate Dorfman
PEC Blog

Nate Dorfman Program Coordinator

Like many Philadelphians, I’m used to thinking of Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County and Southwest Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood as two entirely different places. Cobbs Creek is in the city, while Cheltenham is suburban. Cobbs Creek’s population is largely low-income, while Cheltenham residents are relatively affluent.

As a kid growing up on the city side of the Northeast Philadelphia/Montgomery County line, I felt that distinction intuitively. Cheltenham was a familiar setting where I felt at home — playing on its playgrounds, exploring its dirt footpaths, and even attending pre-school. Years later, as an adult, Cheltenham’s restaurants are still among my family’s favorite dining spots. Cobbs Creek, meanwhile, was completely foreign to me: though I had never actually visited the neighborhood before work brought me there, I perceived it as a place where I would feel unsafe.

Despite the very real differences between these communities, it was their similarities that struck me the most.

All of that changed last month, when I was tasked with leading a pair of public meetings on PEC’s behalf in Cobbs Creek and Cheltenham. The gatherings, held just two days apart, were meant to empower and mobilize two seemingly disparate populations toward similar goals. Yet despite the very real differences between these communities, it was their similarities that struck me the most.

A springtime ride on the Cobbs Creek Trail in Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood

Collaborating with the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford (TTF) Watershed Partnership, PEC invited Cheltenham residents to a community discussion regarding the Tookany Creek Trail corridor, spanning 3.4 miles between Cheltenham Avenue and High School Road. Once complete, this multi-use trail will be a corridor for transportation, providing township residents with access to schools, business districts, and public transit stations. It will also be an asset for recreation, linking residential neighborhoods with existing parks, the larger Circuit Trails network, and most of all, with the Tookany Creek itself. This meeting served as the public kickoff for a trail feasibility study update conducted by Campbell Thomas & Co. Architects and funded through a $60,000 Regional Trails Fund grant that PEC received from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Cheltenham residents gather at Elkins Park Middle School to share input on the Tookany Creek Trail extension

On the day of the meeting, a rainy evening in mid-October, Cheltanham residents of all ages flocked to the Elkins Park Middle School cafeteria. Despite the dreary weather, attendees were excited to be there and eager to share their trail-related dreams, visions and concerns. Many expressed a wish for the Tookany Creek Trail to be a safe corridor for youth traveling to and from school. Others emphasized the need to accommodate walkers, runners and cyclists alike. Whatever their perspective, residents were enthusiastic about the possibility of a multi-use trail in Cheltenham Township and hoped that it could also link to other trail corridors, such as the Pennypack and Wissahickon.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I arrived that evening to a full house — nearly every seat was filled.

Two nights later, and thankfully in better weather conditions, I journeyed to Southwest Philadelphia, ready to gather community input on a new half-mile segment of the Cobbs Creek Trail. PEC led this discussion with multiple City of Philadelphia departments, the Clean Air Council, and the City-owned Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center, which generously provided meeting space for the event.

A full house at the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I arrived that evening to a full house — nearly every seat was filled! Community residents, diverse in age and ethnicity, shared their hopes, worries and aspirations about the trail segment soon to be built. Some attendees pointed to a pattern of trash dumping along existing trails in Cobbs Creek and voiced concern that the new segment might be similarly neglected. Others talked about their interest in culturally relevant trail signage and the need for enhanced lighting in some locations. One resident-suggested idea, which particularly inspired me, involved designing an “adopt-a-trail” program, in which community organizations and neighborhood groups would volunteer to maintain a portion of the trail corridor.

Hearing residents describe the Cobbs Creek Trail as their community’s own “recreation row” brought me joy!

The most exciting part of the Cobbs Creek meeting for me was seeing residents take proud ownership of neighborhood trail development. When I asked attendees to mention trails they enjoy in Philadelphia, the Schuylkill River Trail along Kelly Drive initially rose to the top of the list. Yet without prompting, residents went on to note that Cobbs Creek has amenities that Kelly Drive does not: a playground, an environmental center and a skating rink, to name a few. Hearing Southwest Philadelphia residents describe the Cobbs Creek Trail as their community’s own “recreation row” brought me joy!

Tookany Creek Trail corridor in Cheltenham Township (photo: © Robert P. Thomas 2019)

Looking back on these events, I am glad to be working in both communities and helping to amplify their voices in the trail development process. Most of all, I realize that with their dedicated residents, who care about accessible trails, scenic waterways and beautiful open space, Cheltenham Township and Cobbs Creek are more similar than I could have ever before imagined.

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