It is a crisp Saturday morning right before Thanksgiving, and Dickinson Square Park in "west central Pennsport," as one resident calls Fourth and Tasker Streets, is about to be groomed to within an inch of its life.
The cleanup is part of a citywide "Love Your Park: Fall Edition" event. It's obvious, however, that the several dozen volunteers with rakes, push brooms, shovels, tarps, and leaf blowers need no prompting to spruce up their park.
Most moved to the neighborhood because of it, and they are the reasons the park is cleaner and greener these days.
"We started the hard way, with trash bags and bulletin boards" to drum up volunteers, says Robert Tobin, current president of the nonprofit Friends of Dickinson Square Park.
"Our first big cleanup was in April 2006," says Tobin, a Web designer, who had come here from Washington a few months before, buying an 1885 rowhouse on Tasker across from the park.
"There were years and years of leaves, Baggies, and even crack cocaine," he says. Persistence paid off, the city Recreation Department took notice of the grassroots efforts, and new playground equipment and funding for other improvements followed.
"We're holding our own, at least," he says of efforts to keep the park and the blocks around it safe and secure.
It's a plus that "everyone on Tasker owns a pair of binoculars," says Eileen Gargano, who moved to this slice of Pennsport 31 years ago, across Washington Avenue from Queen Village.
Gargano was part of a generation of sons and daughters of longtime Queen Village residents growing up in the 1970s and 1980s who were priced out of that neighborhood by gentrification spilling over from Society Hill.
"I feel like the old lady on the block," says Gargano, who paid $31,000 for her house in 1981 - a far cry from the $475,000 price that standard-issue rowhouses went for in the boom years of 2004-06.
Today, prices remain below the peak, "continuing to correct, partly because of foreclosures that are still bringing them down," says Margaret Barnes-DelColle, a longtime agent with Solo Real Estate who has just signed on to Coldwell Banker Preferred.
As an example of downward pressure, she points to a "giant mansion" next door to her on Tasker Street on which the owners owed $500,000 - it just sold in the low $300,000 range, she says.
In the last three months, sale prices have ranged from $55,000 for a two-bedroom, one-bath at 210 Wilder St. to a $410,000 three-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath in the 1500 block of East Moyamensing Avenue.
Gargano describes newcomers here as "just different" from the older homeowners. Most are college-educated professionals rather than the blue-collar union members who worked on the docks nearby.
"Many people who grew up here moved to Jersey for the schools, but the kids are grown, and the taxes so high there," she says, "they are moving back."
Toronto native Barnes-DelColle, a resident for 18 years, says recent buyers are first-timers lured by low interest rates, or those moving into larger properties than they could afford elsewhere in the city.
Parking, though ample, is a bit tighter than in years past, she says.
There is considerable infill development - a lot recently went for $70,000. The former St. Casimir's at Third and Wharton Streets is targeted for condos, and investors are looking at Sacred Heart School on East Moyamensing Avenue for rental apartments.
Restaurateur Peter Woolsey says, "Houses are popping up like flowers in abandoned lots," which is a good thing, "even though they start at 7 a.m., and I get home at 2 a.m."
It's a 20-minute walk from his house at Third and Tasker Streets to his four-year-old restaurant, Bistrot La Minette, at Sixth and Bainbridge in Queen Village, but that's not why Woolsey, who grew up in West Philadelphia and Bala Cynwyd, and his French-born wife, Peggy, bought their home in 2007.
A drive-by shooting in front of their Fishtown house was the catalyst.
"We found a great deal, and since we don't have a backyard," he says, "the park is a great playground for our 4-year-old."
The park was a draw as well for Peter Hopkins, wife Paula Pugh Romanaux, and daughter Hannah, who bought on Fourth Street in 2005 after a year in Fishtown.
"We wanted a dog, and there was no place to take one," says Hopkins, choirmaster at St. Peter's Church in Society Hill. "Paula [the church's organist] also wasn't happy with the rehab of the Fishtown house," which they bought after moving from Michigan.
They looked at three houses in South Philadelphia and settled on one that was being flipped, paying $350,000 instead of the $419,000 being sought.
"We've done a lot of work since," Hopkins says, adding that one of the best things about his house is looking "out the front window at grass and trees in the park."
People here would like to see more retail in the neighborhood, something Mike Barone has started with Grindcore, his two-year-old vegan coffeehouse at Fourth and Greenwich Streets.
"It's become a neighborhood gathering place and is drawing people from other areas, as well," says Barone, a Web designer, pointing to a couple with multiple piercings who trek in daily from West Philadelphia.
Barone bought a house here four years ago, and he and a business partner, David Anthem, saw a for-rent sign on what was to become Grindcore, and "the stars aligned."
"I like the idea of living and working in the neighborhood," says Barone, who persuaded his partner, Rachel Jobes, to give up walking dogs for an indoor coffee-making gig.
"Considering that 10 years ago, kids threw rocks at me when I drove through the neighborhood," Barone says, "a vegan coffeehouse seems to be a step in the right direction."
Dickinson Square Park By the Numbers
Population: 5,500 (2010 estimate, includes portions of two census tracts).
Median household income: $38,298 (2009).
Size: 0.15 square mile.
Homes for sale: 18.
Settlements in last three months: 16.
Median days on market: 90.
Median sale price (single-family): $192,000.
Median sale price (all homes): $192,000.
Housing stock: Mostly pre-World War II, 73 percent attached; recent infill townhouses and condo conversions; primarily owner-occupied.
School district: Philadelphia.
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau; City-Data.com; Margaret
Barnes-DelColle, Solo Realty.
Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @alheavens.