After an Excluded Past, Reconnecting Community to Our Shared Waters
Damien Ruffner is Center Manager of the Discovery Center, which protects unique habitat in a major urban area, provides education and adventure programs, builds community in Philadelphia and is part of the Alliance for Watershed Education. Learn more and plan your visit at https://www.discoveryphila.org.
We call it the “Ah-hah” moment. The moment when a new visitor sets their eyes on the largest body of freshwater completely inside the city of Philadelphia. “Is that the ocean?!?” “I’ve lived here my entire life and I had no idea this [reservoir] was here” “These are just some of the hundreds of comments we have heard as people experience The Discovery Center, and the Strawberry Mansion Reservoir, for the first time. And yet this resource is part of our shared waters within the Delaware River Basin, one that exists for people of all races, economic backgrounds and communities to enjoy. During Black History Month and its focus on health and wellness, it’s also a resource we should reflect on for its ability to provide a haven for physical and mental health.
Opened to the public in September 2018, The Discovery Center is a partnership between The Philadelphia Outward Bound School and The National Audubon Society and aims to serve North Philadelphia through education, conservation, and community engagement. The site of The Discovery Center was chosen because of its historic significance to the city, the communities of North Philadelphia, and to utilize an immeasurable resource: The Strawberry Mansion Reservoir. The story of this reservoir can also help tell the complete, and sometimes problematic, story of one of the most amazing resources the city has to offer.
The Strawberry Mansion Reservoir, formally known as the East Park Reservoir, was designed on the tail end of the 1876 World’s Fair to provide clean drinking water to the city. Over the course of the following 90 years, the reservoir system provided upwards of 80% of the drinking water for Philadelphia. During this time, residents of the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood had open access to the trails and the green spaces around the reservoir system. Athletes at Strawberry Mansion High School used the trails for their long-distance track practice. Residents used it as a shortcut to get to and from Kelly Drive. The hills were used to sled in the winters and roll down the grass in the summers. It’s hard to put into words the power and significance of this space.
Then in 1970 a large, unforgiving, chain-link and barbed wire fence went up around the entire property. It sent a clear message to the community: This space is not for you. Residents were not informed of the construction of the fence, nor did they have any input or say over when and where the fence would be. This caused a disconnect between the residents of the neighborhood and the green space that would become The Discovery Center. And unintentionally created two groups of community members: Ones who knew of and utilized the space, and a new group of younger community members that never had the opportunity to experience the reservoir.
This fence was more than a physical barrier. It served as a metaphor for inequity, and it exacerbated a lack of access to our city’s green spaces for Black and Brown neighborhoods. We know green space and access to the natural environment improves opportunities for physical activity, mental relaxation, and appreciation for conservation- all benefits that were lost for 50 years. While we cannot get the time back when it was locked away from the community, we can look forward and appreciate this newly shared resource.
In the nearly fifty years between the closing and reopening of the now decommissioned reservoir, nature has taken over the site. The once clear hills and concrete paths were slowly, and naturally, being overgrown by plant life. This newfound plant life attracted insect and pollinator life. Which in turn attracted larger fauna, and of course birds.
As an Audubon Important Bird Area (IBA), the reservoir plays host to over 130 different species of bird each year, including breathtaking species such as bald eagles, ospreys, and great blue herons. As a major resource on the Atlantic Flyway, the reservoir can support both nesting summer residents, and be a vital part of the migration journey for birds traveling up and down the east coast.
In reopening the space to the public, Outward Bound and Audubon are reinvigorating the space for the local community. But this work cannot be done alone. We have created a Community Engagement Committee, a group of thought leaders, non-profit leaders, and residents, to help guide our programs and public practices to ensure that the unjust removal of this resource does not happen again for the current residents the way it did in the past.
With their guidance, the Discovery Center is now open and free of charge to the community six days a week. Audubon and Outward Bound offer direct programming for our neighbors and introduce concepts of adventure leadership, self-reliance, and conservation to Philadelphians in a beautiful and unique setting. Residents can utilize the space for their own purposes as well. Community residents have held vigils here to pay respects to lost loved ones, celebrated milestones and accomplishments, and some even bonded in marriage in the natural beauty of the reservoir.
The reservoir is a shining gem within our shared waters of the Delaware River Basin. Let us remember that opportunities for health and wellness belong to everyone equally, and we should continually look for ways to break down barriers that keep people from accessing such resources, whether a physical fence or other forms.