Way back when, a stream flowed through West Philadelphia, bisecting the growing middle- and upper-middle-class community.
That stream, Mill Creek, was buried in a giant sewer shortly before the turn of the century. Now, the creek is invisible and the divide that splits West Philly is a socioeconomic one between the University community and the poorer neighborhoods that border it.
Professor of landscape architecture Anne Whiston Spirn has used the buried creek to bridge this new gap, with promising results.
The West Philadelphia Landscape Project is Spirn's bridge. Its goals are to help solve some of the environmental problems created when Mill Creek was buried, to introduce Penn students to urban environmental issues, and to engage West Philadelphia middle-schoolers in a variety of educational activities.
The Mill Creek neighborhood, located north of Haverford Avenue and west of 46th Street, serves as the laboratory for this project. The burial of Mill Creek through this area produced a host of new problems in its wake, such as sinking foundations, flooded intersections and periodic cave-ins.
Spirn's project brings Penn students together with students and faculty at Sulzberger Middle School, which sits atop the sewer, to devise projects aimed at mitigating these problems while teaching other lessons.
Last year, for example, undergraduate students in urban studies worked with Sulzberger students to put together a proposal for a miniature golf course on vacant land in the Mill Creek floodplain at 48th and Haverford.
This year, graduate landscape architecture students used the Sulzberger kids as informants to put together proposals for an educational "water garden" on another vacant lot between the school and the housing project.
Both projects proved to be eye-openers for all concerned.
"My [landscape architecture students] said there was no way they could have accomplished what they did without working with the kids at Sulzberger," Spirn said. "It gave them an insight into what it was like to live in Mill Creek...They learned both positive things about the neighborhood and negative barriers they could overcome."
The Sulzberger students also helped the Penn students become more comfortable with their home community: "All of the students were uncomfortable walking through the neighborhood at first," Spirn said. "By the end of the semester, they were all comfortable walking around it and working with the teenagers."
The projects also expanded the Sulzberger students' educational horizons. "These kids were in 7th grade and had never seen a microscope," she said. With a grant the project received, "we could purchase 12 microscopes for Sulzberger. The kids were fascinated to see under the microscope that flowers had egg cases."
In the meantime, the mini-golf proposal lit an entrepreneurial flame in the Sulzberger students who worked on it. "The 8th graders got caught up in how do you price, how do you determine what people are willing to spend, what to pay the people who work there," Spirn said.
The result of all this number-crunching? "It's still a potential live project, but we have found that it will require some subsidy at first," she said.
Spirn's project, now in its fourth year, has not gone unrecognized. In November, the School District of Philadelphia named her "Person of the Month" for her work on the collaborative project.
Originally published on January 14, 1999