Today's guest blogger is George Matysik, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance. He also writes for the Park Alliance blog Green Countrie Towne.
For parents and caregivers, classic public space sites like Smith Memorial Playground, Batram's Gardens, the Please Touch Museum, and the many well-known parks in the core of the city are popular choices. But I've always held a special affinity for those community spaces not grabbing the headlines. The "hidden gems" that are known by near neighbors (and an occasional Pokémon player), but don't often make tourist guides and visitor websites. Some of Philly's coolest kid-friendly spaces may be just around the corner…and totally free!
1. Happy Hollow
Just blocks from Wayne Junction (serving six SEPTA Regional Rail Lines), Happy Hollow (4800 Wayne Avenue) is the oldest recreation center in Philadelphia and a landmark in South Germantown. While most locals only recognize the historic 1911 George Pearson structure, that is only one piece of the story of Happy Hollow. Beyond Pearson's masterpiece lies the understated 1958 field house by Norman Rice. While both structures are in desperate need of capital improvements (Hello, RebuildPHL!), both structures also complement each other—and their surrounding environs.
Some of the best pickup basketball in the city, a renowned boxing program, and a newly refurbished baseball field can be found at Happy Hollow. But what's Hollow? That would be the site itself—set in a former quarry, donated by E.W. Clark, as a place to seek respite from the rapidly growing city. The real sparkle in this hidden gem property is the brick path behind the playground, which leads to a large picnic area overlooking the entire complex.
2. East Wissahickon
While "big sister" gets the attention of many runners, bikers, anglers, and hikers—these two appendages share equal beauty, with far less foot traffic. Abutting the East side of Lincoln Drive in East Falls, the East Wissahickon rises far above the valley carved out by the Wissahickon. Just west of Bob's Bait Shop on Ridge—a great place to stock up before fishing the Schuylkill or Wissahickon–is the "trail head" for the Eastern Wiss. The trail heads past the edge of Philadelphia University, and terminates at Blue Bell Park—where you can dodge traffic on Lincoln Drive to meet up with the main branch of the Wissahickon and famed Forbidden Drive.
3. Carpenter's Woods
Further northwest, not far from the Kitchen's Lane entrance to the Wissahickon, you'll find Carpenter's Woods. While the natural beauty of the woods is astounding, it's the wildlife that steals the show here. Renowned particularly for its birding, it's a wonderful place to wander and explore, but please keep any four legged friends on a short leash. We'd posit there's more chipmunks per square‐inch than a 1980s toddler's poster wall.
Whether it was the mansion estates that formed the backbone of East Fairmount Park, or the former mills that would create the modern Wissahickon, the Fairmount Park Commission was no stranger to acquiring private lands to build out the modern day park and recreation system. Glen Foerd illustrates just how valuable those acquisitions could be.
Standing at the statue of "Little Ugly," the former owner's canine companion, you can imagine the Delaware River's pre‐development. The grounds are a healthy mix of well kempt garden beds and ivy‐ strewn ruins from another era. Today the mansion is used for weddings (Full disclosure: including my own!), art exhibitions, and community programming that keep the space active and maintained for generations to come! Bring the kids by for afternoon stroll along the water, a visit to one of the programs, or a hunt for Little Ugly! It's the only thing "ugly" about this waterfront gem.
5. Philly Pump Track
Tucked away behind the Mann Performing Arts Center is the Philly Pumptrack—a space dedicated to BMX-style biking for kids and adults. Here you'll have an opportunity (under supervision from an amazing and incredibly helpful staff) to learn the ins-and-outs of BMX biking—and maybe a few cool tricks. A partnership of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the Bicycle Coalition, Neighborhood Bikeworks, and Bicycle Therapy—this projects really highlights the great things that can happen when program partners and community members work together.
While programming is free, the Pumptrack is a public/private partnership, requiring investment to continue its awesome offerings. You can support their bike loan program (currently they are BYOBike) by donating here. For now, bike on over to 53rd and Parkside Avenue, next to the Parkside Evans Recreation Center, and check out this unique public space!
Stayed tuned later on this month for five additional hidden gems for you and your family to check out!