Aiming to build a better city, block by block

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Joyce Smith, co-founder of the Viola Streets Residents Association, in her home in the Parkside section of Philadelphia. In an effort to better her East Parkside block, Smith and her neighbors are finalists in the Knight Cities Challenge.

When Joyce Smith moved to Viola Street in East Parkside in 2006, she took a look around at the blighted Victorian-style homes that lined the blocks. She and her neighbors lived just a block from Fairmount Park and the museums of the Centennial Historic District, but they felt a world apart.

"We're going to do something about this," she thought.

And she did.

She helped form the Viola Street Residents Association in 2009. The scrappy grassroots group has relentlessly sought out every opportunity to better its block, from restoring once-beautiful houses with Habitat for Humanity to drawing up a lauded neighborhood revitalization plan.

But like so many neighborhood groups in Philadelphia trying to improve their city, the folks on Viola Street have the vision but not the money.

"We do it piece by piece and keep plugging away," Smith said.

That may soon change.

The group's plan to transform a dilapidated alley connecting Parkside and the historical district into a community hub was named a finalist last week in the Knight Foundation's Knight Cities Challenge.

It was just one of 20 finalists from Philly, more finalists than from any other city among the 26 cities to participate. When the final winners are announced in April - about 30 winners will be selected from among 158 finalists - the foundation will dish out $5 million for projects big and small.

There are groups like Viola Street, working to better the city by making their small slice of it vibrant, and the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, which is proposing a studio to teach high school students design and building skills - skills the group hopes will help those students reshape their communities.

There's the Meadow at Wister Station project, which proposes, simply, a garden for a long-blighted corridor in Germantown.

And there are projects that aim to attract and retain the young professionals that help revive a city.

Like the Family Garden project, which takes pop-up beer gardens - like the controversial one atop Bok Technical High School, one of last year's winners - and ditches the beer.

Instead, Group Melvin Design - whose Pop-Up Pool project was another of last year's most successful winners - now proposes family-friendly pop-up gardens.

There's the Fairmount Park Conservancy's Boat Philly plan, which wants to turn the underused Meadow Lake at FDR Park into an urban boating destination. And the Enterprise Center's Real World 101, which would pair college students with local businesses on "mutually beneficial projects" in an effort to keep the kids in the city once they graduate.

Look at the Philly finalists, and you see a snapshot of where we are as a city. We are a city with enormous problems, yes, but also one with an enormous amount of people with great ideas on how to tackle them.

And not just Scotch Tape solutions, either - smart ones that seize on the unique opportunities our city offers, and the unique challenges holding it back. So much so that, this year, the Knight Foundation folks seemed to say, well, hey, these are all good ideas.

None of these are ideas that will transform our entire city on their own. But they center on what is by far the biggest challenge facing us: that we are two Philadelphias.

There are those who choose to live here - and who need to choose to make a future here to keep this city's newfound momentum going.

And there is the population of some Philadelphians who never had a choice at all, who are entrenched in soul-crushing poverty and drowning in failed neighborhoods.

One Philadelphia that we need to keep, another that we need to build.

The Knight Foundation will do what it can. But it's up to us to get behind the people with the ideas. People like Joyce Smith, who keep plugging along, trying to change this city piece by piece.

mnewall@phillynews.com215-854-2759