Evan M. Lopez
Darkness has already fallen over the park. We’re waiting with a series of silhouetted figures on an unnamed cobblestone street that sprouts from a parking lot off Kelly Drive and runs into the Glendinning Rock Garden. Trolleys and Amtrak trains periodically roar by. Everyone seems nervous, unsure of what they’re waiting for.
“Is it happening tonight? Did it get shut down again?” I ask.
No one seems to know. It feels awkward standing around in the half-light with a bunch of strangers like a drug deal about to go bad — which, in a way, it kind of is.
“I don’t know, it happened this time last week,” said an older guy wearing a military surplus vest with no shirt underneath. “Hey, I got blueberry haze. I got molly, too. You guys like molly?”
I had first encountered The Drum Circle, as it’s efficiently known, as a Temple student in the mid-2000s. Kids that had gone to St. Joe’s Prep told tales of a bonfire in the woods they had heard about from high school upperclassmen, who had heard about it from earlier upperclassmen.
Beyond being a great place to drink a forty beyond the reach of campus security, the unsanctioned gathering was known to attract a rotating assortment of hippies, crust punks, homeless people and generally interesting folks willing to share their stories and their drugs. In short, it was a bored college student’s dream.
But that was six years ago. Now, as more shadowy figures appear, milling around the cobblestone lane, I have my doubts.
Suddenly, two men and a woman, also in military surplus clothing, emerge from a van with a pit bull and a couple of gnarled pieces of wood. They move decisively, and the crowd files in behind them, through a stone archway carved into the hill, then up a flight of stairs. We cross onto a dirt track and into another one of Fairmount Park’s endless, forgotten forests.
It’s time to start the fire.
Fireside lore would have you believe that The Drum Circle started in 1985, and that different groups of people have kept the tradition going, in between police raids, ever since. It’s a legacy owed to Philadelphia’s massive and neglected park system, swaths of which have long since been given back to nature thanks to decades of budget cuts and vacillating political interest in what is occasionally purported to be “the world’s largest landscaped park.”
That claim has perhaps never been more dubious than today. Even a cursory comparison of modern satellite images with historic planning maps reveals at least a quarter of the landscaped areas of Fairmount Park, the 4,200-acre heart of the park system, have been overtaken by brush.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Topographical maps from 1910 depict a Victorian pleasure garden with copses of trees thoughtfully placed among rolling hills; it’s salted with refreshment stands, mansions and leftover buildings from the Centennial Exhibition and connected by trolley lines that spanned streams on mighty stone archways. Historic photos show neatly planted hillsides, which, at least up to the 1960s, were kept mostly clear of overgrowth.
But that would all change rapidly, as politicians raided the park’s funds to patch declining city revenues (“Trees don’t vote,” paraphrased one parks commissioner in the 1980s). The 500-man Park Guard corps was dissolved by Mayor Frank Rizzo (who also slashed the parks budget by 50 percent) despite intense public outcry in the 1970s. As a result, crime spiked in the park, and historic buildings were abandoned, some falling victim to arson. The trolleys were discontinued, their old lines choked by vegetation as budgets for mowing and brush clearance were gutted.
The parks budget shrank, over 60 years, from 3.5 percent of the city’s to less than half a percent today — and it shows. It’s estimated that, in certain areas of the park, 35 percent of all plant life is invasive. Just 22 full-time rangers patrol the full 9,200 acres of the Philadelphia park system, the size of the cities of Chester and Camden combined.
But while the city has been content to simply forget about sweeping tracts of the park, Philly residents have not. The park today is a ruin of its former self, but within this still-beautiful, half-lawless wilderness is an opaque world of activity — the realm of weekly bonfires, midnight DJ sessions, squatters, food foragers and niche sports teams, all searching for a home in Fairmount’s great, neglected expanse.
While the park today may lack the formal elegance of its sculptured past, Philadelphians — sometimes skirting legal boundaries, occasionally winning official sanction — have created something infinitely more interesting as they reclaim pieces of Fairmount for themselves.
Back at the Drum Circle, I’m scavenging in the darkened brush for kindling. According to a 1938 Works Project Administration map, this was once a manicured garden. Now, I’m pretty sure I’m stumbling around in a tangle of poison ivy. The dirt track extends deep into the woods, complete with jumps made of cement piping, presumably hauled in by BMX riders.
Eventually, someone gets the fire gets going. People settle in: drinking, bumming cigarettes, chatting with strangers. “Welcome, people; peace and love,” says a shirtless man called Q, carrying a djembe. He says he’s been coming to the drum circle since 2001, but complains that there are conspicuously few drummers tonight.
A group of sharply dressed men sharing a warm bottle of white wine turn out to be aircraft mechanics from Delaware. They say they started showing up a few weeks ago because they got bored of going to Dirty Frank’s.
Q tries to get a beat going, with limited success. One woman, slouched against a log and already drunk, slurs, “Come on, get energy! I’ll dance if there’s energy.”
Lucas, from West Philadelphia, tells me about growing up on an Air Force base in Germany. He says he comes to the Circle, in part, because he misses Germany’s more permissive public-drinking laws. He recalls nights spent meeting people over beers in public squares. “Over there, there’s no sprawl; the cities just end, and then it’s farmland. They build these big bonfires just outside town some nights, and everyone will drink and hang out. No one cares,” he says.
The drunken woman from earlier is now being led back to the parking lot, her arms slung around the shoulders of two companions. “Sorry; it’s not you, it’s me!” she yells back to us.
Three latecomers from Overbrook arrive carrying chairs and a folding table. One puts up a little handmade sign that reads “Ganja Punch, 2 for $5.”
“It’s a blend of mugwort, black tea, orange juice, cranberry, passion fruit and a little bit of green in there, too,” says a man with dreadlocks, smiling. It tastes like raspberry iced tea. If it does contain marijuana, it’s not apparent. But it is refreshing.
Another of the three packs a glass pipe with marijuana and DMT — “working man’s acid” they tell me, because the powerful hallucinogen only lasts for 15 minutes or so, “just long enough for a shift break.” They offer to sell me some.
There’s still no drumming, and drug sales are much more open than I remember. One attendee says that most of the people that used to participate in the drumming have moved on to a new location in South Philadelphia, complaining about the rowdier crowd and occasional muggings that took place as people filtered away from the pit.
Now it’s a Wednesday afternoon, and I’m tracing the remnants of a trolley route in West Fairmount Park with Sidney Goldstein, who organizes informal hikes through this particularly overgrown section of the park, which he refers to as “The Maze.”
“The first time I organized a hike, all the group wanted to kill me, because we got stuck in the trails for a couple of hours,” says Goldstein, who is in his 60s. “But I was having a great time. I love finding new trails.”
He routinely takes groups of up to 50 people out here to marvel at the hidden wonders, occasionally encountering encampments of homeless people and, in one instance, a pack of wild dogs he had to keep at bay with a stick. “We had to swing at them,” he says. “We cut that tour short.”
A Wynnefield native, Goldstein has been treading these woods since childhood. He recalls coming to nearby Belmont Plateau as a child to fill up jugs of water at a spring with his parents. Back in the 1950s, municipal springs were still common throughout the park, their water prized for its purity. The city would eventually seal up every one, citing water-quality concerns, though some of the ornate stone fonts can still be seen along Kelly Drive and elsewhere.
Following the winding network of paths, Goldstein tells me they were carved out by coaches from nearby colleges and high schools who use the rugged landscape for cross-country training. The city estimates that Fairmount Park as a whole has around 15 miles of “soft-surface” dirt trails, although Goldstein says there are at least 10 miles’ worth of pathways spiderwebbed through this section of forest alone.
The primitive track, with rough timber bridges spanning streams and berms made out of sunken tree limbs lining hairpin turns, takes us beneath the towering abutment of an abandoned trolley bridge that’s easily 20 feet tall. We stare in wonder.
“It’s like a lost civilization,” marvels Goldstein. “You don’t even have to dig to find it.”
Later, crossing the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, I ask him if he thinks the city should start reclaiming the wild parts of the park. He stops in his tracks.
“What — are you kidding?” he says. “The city would just screw everything up.”
We pass the park system’s fenced-off supply depot, which occupies the old trolley-car barn for the abandoned rail system all around us. Heaped inside the fence, among Belgian blocks and other building materials, are piles of beautifully carved stone benches from another era, being slowly overtaken by ivy.
Up Kelly Drive from The Drum Circle, a different night of the week. DJs have set up next to the river and are blasting electronic music.
Operating under cover of darkness, the generator-powered DJ sessions — loosely termed “raves” — have persisted for years, likely evading trouble because they are simultaneously tightly organized and very laid-back, in spite of the pulsing music. Most people are splayed out on blankets. “What else am I going to do on a [weekday] night?” says Dmytro, one of about 30 attendees. “The cops know, but it’s chill.”
Artists affiliated with the local Rizumu collective put on the show, and are careful to keep out troublemakers. One, who performs as DJ Naked Ape, tells me not to write about the event — out of fear not of the law, but of publicity that might attract a younger, wilder element. But it’s hardly secretive: It takes place feet from one of the park’s most popular trails, and has been extensively promoted online.
Frankly, there’s not a lot to write about. Most people simply chat and stargaze, sipping beers and passing around bug spray. But I understand their wariness, given the problems at The Drum Circle. They don’t want to attract crime, which would attract authorities.
The park administration has a surprisingly sanguine view of these midnight meetups.
“As long as they behave within the rules that protect the park and the public, there’s not really an issue there,” says Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of parks. “We can’t police the whole park 24/7, so the best we can hope for is that people abide by the rules and clean up after themselves.”
In any case, the section of the park that contains both The Drum Circle and the Rizumu event is patrolled by the 22nd Police District, the city’s most murder-plagued. Cracking down on innocuous trance-music aficionados would appear to be a low priority.
In an hour, only one police car passes by. After pausing at a nearby intersection, it speeds away.
Some activities born in the shadowy vacancies of Fairmount Park have morphed over time into symbiotic partnerships with the overtaxed Parks Department. The Longknockers Driving Range, for one, started out as group of black men teaching neighborhood kids how to swing a club. Eventually, in 1979, the city allowed the members to restore an abandoned driving range at 33rd and Oxford and run it themselves.
The driving range is overseen by Henry “Stoney” Stone, who peers out the window of the trailer that functions as the temporary clubhouse. The original building was torn down in 2011 due to structural decay; the club is now seeking donations to build a new pro shop. After hitting a few balls, I ask Stoney if the city is helping with that project. “What do you think?” he responds with a grimace.
A few hundred feet away, the Sedgley Woods disc-golf course has evolved on a similar trajectory.
John “Stash” DiSciascio, head of the Friends of Sedgley Woods and a part-time employee of Parks and Rec, says the group, which has been meeting since 1977, won official recognition through its stewardship of the area. While he acknowledges that people sometimes drink or smoke while playing through the course, for the most part his group “leaves it better than we found it.”
In fact, the scruffy group of disc-golfers are the only thing keeping the weeds at bay around the ruins of The Cliffs, once a stately Colonial-era mansion atop a hill laced with sloping trails.
The course’s “back nine” is a narrow path punctuated by volunteer-created “fairways” that trace an old trail around what’s left of the mansion, a crumbling monument to the municipal incompetence and penny-pinching that decimated this part of the park. The Cliffs fell victim to arson in 1986 after more than a decade of neglect; fire trucks were called in to quench the blaze, but got stuck in the clay earth that had been hauled in to cover up dumped municipal waste. It was the last of three park mansions — part of what is still the most extensive collection of Colonial estates held by any American city — to fall to arson within a year.
Amazingly, the devastated Cliffs structure has actually been somewhat stabilized by the Parks Department.
“The decision was made to leave it as a ruin,” Focht says. “Yes, there’s some abuse and it’s graffiti-covered, but we’re leaving it as it is.”
These urban ruins exude mystery. But they are ultimately a reflection of a lack of capacity, and of the bottomless poverty that has stretched the city’s finances. That poverty has shaped how people use Fairmount Park, too. Sidney Goldstein and other park aficionados report encountering people living in the wilds of the park system, or stumbling across abandoned encampments. While some choose to become park pioneers — for example, a back-to-nature type who was spotted living on goose-infested Peter’s Island in the middle of Schuylkill up until last year — most Fairmount Park residents appear to be out of money and options.
On a recent afternoon, I came across a makeshift home off of West River Drive, near an old stone rail bridge. Hidden behind a weeping cherry tree, just out of view of passing joggers, is a shanty covered with black tarpaulin. Windchimes dangle from the branches overhead; a clothesline is strung up nearby.
As I approach, an older man emerges, holding a ball-peen hammer. I greet him, but he just glares silently, gripping the hammer until I back away.
Sam Santiago, an outreach facilitator for Project H.O.M.E., says encampments are not uncommon in the park system.
“A few years ago we had, like, a tent city up there off Kelly Drive near Girard Avenue. They had everything set up with solar panels and electric batteries,” he says. For the average Philadelphian, “They’re out of sight, out of mind.”
The organization regularly checks in on the small, reclusive population that lives in the park, but they’re a difficult group to serve, says outreach coordinator Carol Thomas.
“We’ve encountered people who have severe mental illness. They’re there because they feel safer alone in the park. … There are people who feel that they can survive in the park, who have a military or survivalist background,” she says. “Mostly, people who come to the park really want to be left alone.”
It’s late on a Friday, and Paine’s Park — the newly completed skate park by the Schuylkill, built with donated money after the city evicted skateboarders from Love Park — is choked with activity: teenagers escaping boredom at home, professional skaters executing impressive maneuvers on the contoured surfaces.
Suddenly, a horde of BMX riders streams into the park in a line stretching back down the Ben Franklin Parkway and out of sight. Riders perch along the rim of a sculpted bowl in the middle of all the activity. One stops long enough to tell me that at least 100 of them gather for this event, called a street jam, every Friday.
The bikers perform stunts off a staircase built for exactly that purpose. The riders, all ages and races, cheer each other on. Pedestrians on the Schuylkill River Trail stop to watch.
Then, at 11 p.m., the lights go out. (The city has them on a timer to conserve electricity.) Paine’s Park’s official hours are posted as 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Their grace period over, some bikers stay in the park, snapping on head lamps to continue their acrobatics. But most move toward the Art Museum.
Following on foot, I see them lined up on either side of the museum’s famous steps. Kids are craning over their handlebars, peering down into the trenches next to the steps, the basins of a pair of cascading fountains the city shut off 10 years ago to stop people from swimming in them.
As I scale the steps, I see that some death-defying riders are freestyling in the trenches, jumping from one to the other and landing in the circular pool at the foot of the stairway. Others are riding down the mountainous steps themselves. The stunts are alternately impressive and terrifying.
I catch an onlooker, a young kid named LaRon, straddling his bike. I ask him when they claimed the steps as a midnight playground.
“They told us they were going to keep the lights on in the skate park all night. They did that for a little while, but then they just started turning them off,” he says. “Now they do this every weekend,” he adds, pointing down into the trench just in time to watch a rider miscalculate and slam against the stone wall.
In the northernmost stretches of Fairmount Park is the Prior Cricket Club, one of three local teams that practice in the park system, and the only one to have inherited a 1930s-era club-house in the park. The structure was built in Philadelphia cricketers’ heyday by expats and Anglophiles with sponsorship from Norristown’s now-defunct Prior Brewery, according to Terence Fernandes, Prior’s secretary. “Here, it was as English as you could get,” he says.
“These grounds used to be pristine back then — good enough for lawn bowling,” says Fernandes, looking out over Edgely Field, off of Belmont Avenue.
Today, the local teams are the domain of mostly South Asian and Caribbean players. By the time Fernandes, a fit, middle-aged man originally from Bangalore, joined in the 1980s, the other old-money sports teams that shared the clubhouse’s upkeep cost — archery and lawn-bowling clubs — had moved to the Main Line. For a time, cricket was king, infused with a fresh roster of foreign-born players.
But that didn’t last. Between rent paid to the city, the cost of maintaining the Depression-era clubhouse and seasonal grass seeding, Prior struggled to stay afloat. As tends to happen in the upside-down world of Fairmount Park, salvation came from an unlikely source.
“The Frisbee folks approached us around the time I came — we had had the clubhouse and field to ourselves. There were only 100 of them then,” says Fernandes. Today, 30 or so Prior members share the clubhouse and field with more than 2,000 Ultimate Frisbee players. It’s an uneven split. Fernandes walks me past a pizza party crowded with Ultimate players, and downstairs to a dusty basement lined wall to wall with 80 years of Prior club history. Next to a cramped bar are black-and-white photographs, some laced with cobwebs, showing players in crisp white uniforms with handlebar mustaches traveling to international tournaments in the 1940s and ’50s.
At a weekly practice, Fernandes coaches a young Nepalese batsman on a netted cricket pitch in a corner of the extensive Edgely fields. A hard strike sends the ball flying. “Ball! Watch out!” call the cricket players as the ball sails overhead. Ultimate players scatter.
The city mows the field twice a month, but together, the teams are largely responsible for keeping this remote part of the park from falling into decay — seeding the grass, cleaning up trash from St. Joe’s students that party on the field, and essentially funding the city’s upkeep through hefty usage fees.
I visited the park dozens of times for this article over the summer, walked miles of its trails, spoke with at least 30 people who have found their place in Philly’s overgrown backyard — and still only covered a fraction of what it contains.
Such an expansive park would be tricky for even a well-funded, modern parks department to handle. Although the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation has invested in smarter “forest management,” funding is still perpetually short. The department is estimated to have just half of the funding it needs.
On top of these limitations is the new challenge of transforming parks into sustainable ecosystems.
“Forest and land management is one of the most complex problems for big cities. We have to make sure the park is ready to use and generally clean, every day. And then you have this stewardship obligation that is longer term,” says Parks Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis.
Focht says volunteer trail-clearing efforts are fine, but they’re not a long-term solution. “You build a sidewalk and that’s there for 10 years. You clear a trail and it could be overgrown next week,” he says.
The favored approach is to focus on eliminating invasive weeds and planting native forest vegetation that requires less maintenance.
Even if the city can bring order to the park’s wild plant life, it seems unlikely it would deter the many wild personalities that are naturally drawn there.
And this story encapsulates barely half of what I saw in the park: the “Wild Foodies of Philadelphia” who meet weekly to sample the herbs, berries and edible plants; the acolytes of a 17th-century hermit who lived in a cave in the Wissahickon; the Subaru car meet on the Art Museum steps. Nor can it encompass the inexplicable: the man and his dog paddle-boarding down the Schuylkill, a guy banging out a solo on a full drum kit he’d set up amid the trees, the man lounging in his underwear on a picnic table by Kelley Drive.
I spent whole days in the park. But I still always felt like I was just scratching the surface, like there was always something more in those woods, just out of sight.
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