Designing Mifflin Square Park to unite a diverse ethnic neighborhood

A woman walks through Mifflin Square Park in South Philadelphia with her two children. A 2015 shooting in Mifflin Square Park has led to a new way of thinking about public space in this highly diverse pocket of South Philadelphia.

It’s not an official designation by any means, but the patch of South Philadelphia surrounding Mifflin Square Park holds claim to being the most diverse neighborhood in the city.

The blocks closest to the square are populated by Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian families who arrived as refugees in the 1970s. They’ve been joined more recently by Koreans, Filipinos, Burmese, Indonesians, Nepalese, Pakistanis, and Bhutanese. Moving west from the square, you encounter older waves from Italy, Africa, Mexico, and Central America; the east side retains a strong Irish and Polish flavor. You might even bump into a few Jewish people, whose old synagogues are among the dwindling reminders of their former neighborhood dominance.

With its wide paths and mature trees, the park at Sixth and Wolf should be a peaceful commons that brings this ethnic stew into the American melting pot. Yet after rival gangs clashed there in 2015 -- an incident that left one person dead and two wounded -- it became clear that the square’s formal 19th-century design was a factor in keeping them apart.

The shootings deeply shocked the neighborhood, said Thoai Nguyen, who has lived a block from the square since arriving as a refugee from Vietnam in 1975. Though the park had always been a bit of a balkanized space, the clashes "just didn’t make sense,” said Nguyen, who now runs Seamaac, a nonprofit agency that provides social services to South Philadelphia’s diverse Asian community.  

The city’s initial reaction to the violence was to ban the unlicensed Asian food vendors  who congregated at the southwest corner near Ritner Street. “A police cruiser sat in the center of the park for like a year,” said Nguyen. Although the vendors were popular and brought a lively presence to the square, they were deemed a nuisance because some sold beer illegally and were seen as encouraging gambling.

In many ways, the city’s response echoes its recent handling of a drug-related shooting in Rittenhouse Square, which led to a controversial, if short-lived, sitting ban. But limiting people’s ability to use and enjoy their public spaces is rarely productive in the long term. After the initial crackdown, the city and Mifflin Square’s community groups came to realize that the shooting could be a catalyst for improving both the park and the neighborhood.

That effort is now getting underway in the form of a major neighborhood-planning study. When the William Penn Foundation heard about the attempts to fix Mifflin Square’s problematic design, it offered the city Department of Parks and Recreation a $500,000 grant to hire a consultant. It chose Hector, a Newark, N.J., urban design studio cofounded by Damon Rich. Nguyen’s group, Seamaac, became the neighborhood liaison.

From Rich’s first visit, he said, it was clear that the park’s old-fashioned design accentuated neighborhood divisions. Although the square is just 3.5 acres -- half the size of its Rittenhouse cousin -- it has a pinwheel layout that segments the space into pie-shaped grass wedges. Not only do the paths between the wedges take up a huge amount of acreage, the grassy areas aren’t really big enough to accommodate casual games or picnics.

Everyone stays in his own territory. Asian residents tended to congregate in the southeastern wedge, near the food vendors, and African Americans stayed near the basketball court on the Fifth Street side. 

A quote that Rich dug up in a 1919 newspaper article sums up the situation perfectly: “It’s not one of the most attractive of the open spaces in the city, but it may be described as having possibilities.”

Half the challenge will be getting Mifflin Square’s many ethnic groups to identify exactly what those possibilities are. More than 20 languages are spoken in the study area, which spans Mifflin Street to Oregon Avenue, between Fourth and Ninth Streets. Many residents work long hours and have little time for community meetings.

Rich and Nguyen have been there before. Rich founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy, which uses nontraditional methods to bring people into the planning process. Nguyen spent several years working for the American Friends Service Committee in the ethnically divided nations of Eastern Europe.

As they feared, Seamaac’s first attempt at civic engagement got off to a slow start. After only a few immigrants showed up at the initial planning meeting, Nguyen concluded that, “our process of civic engagement is just foreign to some people.”

If residents weren’t going to come to Seamaac, Seamaac figured it would go to the residents. With translators in tow, its staff has already knocked on more than 400 doors to conduct surveys about the park. Its website explains the process in nine languages. 

Rich also built a cardboard model of the park so people could visualize what the redesign might look like. Cardboard sections can be moved around or replaced. When residents propose a new design element -- say, a volleyball court -- he can drop a cardboard version into place.

For Rich, the process is as important as the result. “Through this discussion of the one thing everyone holds in common, we hope to help the neighborhood cohere,” he said. “The idea is to build up larger ways of thinking about democracy.”

Because of the emphasis on community engagement, the process is expected to take another year. Over that time, Nguyen hopes to work with former food vendors to get them licensed so they can return to the park after the redesign.

The planning study will eventually go beyond the park and look at ways to strengthen the Seventh Street shopping corridor and make it appeal to a wider population. When Nguyen’s family was resettled in Philadelphia -- by the Jewish agency HIAS -- Seventh Street was lined with Jewish butchers and grocers. Today, it’s a mix of Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Mexican shops.

Mifflin Square has responded to the changes over the years. In 1956, the flagpole in the center of the pinwheel was converted to a spray park. In 1981, the Italian bocce court gave way to basketball hoops. The only certainty is that new waves of immigrants will keep coming, and that they will adapt Mifflin Square to suit their tastes.