PlanPhilly

Hawthorne Park supporters hope jazz will draw people into the hard-won park

The peak of last week's heat wave didn't keep people out of Hawthorne Park for the second Jazz in Hawthorne Park event Thursday. 

This summer Friends of Hawthorne Park and Jazz Bridge are presenting a four-part series of free jazz concerts in Hawthorne Park. Thursday the Renaissance Quartet with Tyrone Brown serenaded a sweltering crowd as the sun set slowly over the houses surrounding Hawthorne Park. Last month The Mike Boone/John Swana Project kicked off the series, and next month Webb Thomas & Webb T's Fleet will continue the groove. The Venissa Santi Quartet will roundout the series in September. 

These concerts are part of a larger effort by the Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition (HEC) and Friends of Hawthorne Park to draw people into Hawthorne Park - the park that HEC and its allies fought for more than a decade to build. After a lenghthy battle, Hawthorne Park finally opened last summer, and while the park has seen some programming, this is the park's first concert series. 

    • The Renaissance Quartet with Tyrone Brown set up under the hot afternoon sun
      The Renaissance Quartet with Tyrone Brown set up under the hot afternoon sun
    • A few brave souls with shaded chairs braved the sun to get a front row seat
      A few brave souls with shaded chairs braved the sun to get a front row seat
    • Despite the heat, neighbors and friends filled the shaded perimiter of the park
      Despite the heat, neighbors and friends filled the shaded perimiter of the park
    • The park filled up as The Renaissance Quartet with Tyrone Brown played
      The park filled up as The Renaissance Quartet with Tyrone Brown played
    • The group put on an impressive show despite the baking heat
      The group put on an impressive show despite the baking heat
    • Hawthorne Park neighbor and jazz legend Mickey Roker, center, came to tease the band between songs
      Hawthorne Park neighbor and jazz legend Mickey Roker, center, came to tease the band between songs
    • Neighbors scattered throughout the spacious park
      Neighbors scattered throughout the spacious park
    • Some sat in the big, orange recliners set in Hawthorne Park
      Some sat in the big, orange recliners set in Hawthorne Park
    • People filled the edges of the park as the sun set and music continued
      People filled the edges of the park as the sun set and music continued
    • The Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition offered snacks and water ice
      The Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition offered snacks and water ice
    • A fan, right, posed with Mickey Roker, left, and his daughter, center
      A fan, right, posed with Mickey Roker, left, and his daughter, center
    • Young kids played as parents and neighbors listened to the jazz
      Young kids played as parents and neighbors listened to the jazz
    • Neighbors gathered on the corners and on stoops as the music drifted towards them
      Neighbors gathered on the corners and on stoops as the music drifted towards them
    • Jazz will return to Hawthorne Park August 15 and September 19. Shows are free and start at 7p.m.
      Jazz will return to Hawthorne Park August 15 and September 19. Shows are free and start at 7p.m.
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When Tim Hitchens, a volunteer with HEC and Friends of Hawthorne Park, mentioned the jazz series to a neighbor, the neighbor asked who was playing. Hitchens didn’t name Mickey Roker, and the neighbor said, “You’re trying to do a jazz series in this park, and you’re not even talking to the greatest jazz player in Philadelphia?”

Little did Hitchens know, famed jazz player Mickey Roker, who has played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald, lives across the street from the park. Over the years Roker has spent a lot of time sitting on his stoop, watching the space where the park now stands morph. 

Roker says this is the third time he has seen the space change. 

“The homes were there when I came to Philly,” he said. “I came to Philly in 1942.”  

In the early ‘60s those houses were torn down so that the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) could build four high-rise housing towers. By the ‘80s, though, the towers were notoriously crime-ridden, and in 1999 they were torn down. 

As Roker remembers, he and his wife left for a cruise on Saturday. The buildings were blown up on Sunday. When he came home the buildings were a pile of rubble. That rubble remained as an empty lot while nearby houses were built, and construction workers parked their trucks and equipment in the lot. 

Before the towers came down, the space had been promised as a park, but plans and funding froze and politics came into play. In 1999 neighbors began working together to advocate for their rights and demonstrate their commitment to the park. A few years later they officially became the Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition (HEC), which among other things, fought to see Hawthorne Park built.

“We went through a lot to get this neighborhood like it is,” said Pat Bullard, former HEC president. “We had a lot of problems.”

Battling PHA and developers who wanted to make changes the community didn’t agree with was practically a full time job, Bullard said. HEC gained support from city and state officials, departments and organizations, but the struggle to see Hawthorne Park come to fruition continued until June 5, 2012, when the ceremonial ribbon was cut. 

    • The zig-zagged brick pattern catches your eye as you enter the park through one of many access points
      The zig-zagged brick pattern catches your eye as you enter the park through one of many access points
    • Big orange recliners offer a place to stretch out
      Big orange recliners offer a place to stretch out
    • A stage area provides a perfect spot for performances like this jazz series
      A stage area provides a perfect spot for performances like this jazz series
    • It is hard to capture just how large the park feels
      It is hard to capture just how large the park feels
    • Trees and landscaping help break up the vast space, creating smaller sections within the large park
      Trees and landscaping help break up the vast space, creating smaller sections within the large park
    • The bricks design allows water to flow between and seep into the ground
      The bricks design allows water to flow between and seep into the ground
    • Benches line the park's many walkways
      Benches line the park's many walkways
    • A chess table is tucked away on the south edge of the park
      A chess table is tucked away on the south edge of the park
    • Down the street a mural pays homage to the neighborhood's rich musical culture
      Down the street a mural pays homage to the neighborhood's rich musical culture
    • Today the park is surrounded by brick row homes
      Today the park is surrounded by brick row homes
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Since then, HEC and the Friends of Hawthorne Park have been trying to establish consistent programming to draw people into the park and keep crime out. They’ve held a couple movie nights and other small events, but this jazz series is the first of its kind for the park. 

    • Jazz in Hawthorne Park
      Jazz in Hawthorne Park

“We would like to have a really nice program for the park,” Bullard said. “We’d like to bring people in and always have something for the kids.”

The jazz series will continue through September with a concert on August 15 (Webb Thomas & Webb T’s Fleet) and one on September 19 (The Venissa Santi Quartet). Both concerts are free and start at 7 p.m. 

The Friends of Hawthorne Park also has four movie nights planned:

  • Lady and the Tramp, Friday, July 26 – with special guest PAWS and a pet parade
  • Sister Act 2, Tuesday, August 6 – with special guest the Philadelphia Police Department 3rd District and a safety demonstration
  • Rocky, Friday, Friday, August 23 – with special guest Fearless Athletics 
  • The Karate Kid, Friday, September 27 – with Wushu Kung Fu by Hasan Rucker

Each movie begins at dark, but pre-movie activities begin at 7:30 p.m. 

“I’m just happy to have things happening and started,” Hitchens said. “…My hope is we’ll get more people in and active once they see the movies [and events].”


About the author

Christine Fisher, Transportation reporter

Christine covers transportation and writes about everything from pedestrian concerns to bicycle infrastructure, bridges, trail networks, public transit and more. Her favorite assignments send her bushwhacking through Philadelphia’s yet-to-be-cleared bike trails, catching a glimpse of SEPTA’s inner workings or pounding the pavement to find out what pedestrians really think. Christine also covers community news for Eyes on the Street, where her coverage ranges from food sovereignty to public art and urban greening. She first joined PlanPhilly in fall 2011 as an intern through a partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods website. During the internship her reporting on the Housing Authority’s surplus property auctions earned an award from the Society of Professional Journalists.



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