Portrait of a Neighborhood Park


Cianfrani Park is a small, scruffy but much loved park in Philadelphia – small enough that you can sometimes take in a multi-stage theater of human activity.

The Cianfrani name has a connection to Henry “Buddy” Cianfrani, the late ex-state senator, who was convicted and served time on federal racketeering and mail-fraud charges. He had also scandalized the community by romancing a local newspaper reporter, a “source.” The park itself, though, is actually named in honor of his mother.

A blue and yellow Pennsylvania State historical plaque honoring famed Joe Venuti (1903-1978), “Father of the Jazz Violin”…went to grade school here”… marks the entry.

Once the site of the Campbell School where young Joe Venuti attended, the school was demolished and a park built sometime in the 1960’s some say. Bricks are still discovered whenever a shovel is taken to the topsoil.

Ultimately, Cianfrani Park had become a scourge, a rusty chainlink enclosed dog pen for some 20-30 homeless dogs and assorted homeless people. Park rescue took the form of the “Friends of Cianfrani Park” neighborhood group formed in 1993 to make it “the green heart of our community, everyone’s front yard and urban living room,” observed local architect David Morse.


“Cianfrani Site Plan”
Drawn by: David Morse, Architect

“Over 25 years, the now gentrified neighborhood still holds as solidly middle class. Recently, more and more young families and singles have moved in. There’s no official park landscape architect, but rather a group of neighborhood design professionals and concerned neighbors who have donated hundreds of hours of pro bono time,” added Morse who contributed drawings to the collaborative community design effort.

The park has some dry patches but, in fact, it continues to receive a lot of loving care from area residents, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and other funding sources. A simple pipe rail design replaced the chainlink eyesore, planting beds received custom designed wrought iron fencing and new cross-circulating pathways were laid out. 24 new trees were planted in the park in the last 10 years. The 2012 plan projects grass restoration, plantings, and permeable paving.


M2_Park concert

“Summer Concert”
Photos: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

You can see an older gent shadow boxing here on occasion. He’s built like a fighter, ferocious in his prime – hunched over, powerful shoulders. Wears dark blue shorts and a tank top even in colder weather. He keeps at it, a certain pride in his own fitness. Looks tan as if he spends a lot of time out there swingin’ at the breeze. Of all the people you see jogging, biking, and skateboarding Shadow Boxer stands out as if a shadow, himself cast from another era of fitness.

Is he, when he throws a punch at the air, replaying his greatest hits? Top athletes do seem to have tremendous recall, a measure of their hyper-focused intensity. They can recite the play-by-play down to the minutest detail, even decades later. So is Shadow Boxer still settling scores…or just plain exercising?

Apparently, symphony conductors specialize in longevity. All that upper body movement is good for you, not to mention the love of music. Maybe Shadow Boxer just enjoys the fresh air, staying in shape and really has no other agenda.

T’ai Chi Master also hangs out at Cianfrani Park. He’s firmly planted on the earth, too, but with a whole different aspect–a controlled fluidity of the highest order. Shadow Boxer smartly protects himself, ducking or nicking the jaw of his invisible opponent. T’ai Chi Master slowly pulls space into and through himself like a strand of invisible taffy, infinitely long; he captures and releases vast oceans of space.

Cianfrani Park is a hard-won, cherished public space everyone can make his or her own.

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and writer based in Philadelphia.

Categories: Cities, Landscape