Growing stewardship in Orkney Park

Community members come together to raise funds to maintain green space near the park

Fun in the park: Community members gather on Wednesday, June 21 to fundraise to maintain the green space that lies adjacent to Orkney Park.

By Lindsey Nolen

What better way to spend the summer solstice than by enjoying food, drinks, music and good company in one of the beloved urban green spaces within the city?
In addition to enjoying all of these great things which Orkney Park had to offer, community members gathered in the space on the evening of Wednesday, June 21 to help fundraise to keep this beloved wooded parcel as it is now in the years to come.
Situated in the heart of a rapidly gentrifying Northern Liberties neighborhood, the four wooded lots adjacent to the park’s concrete playground are owned by long-time N. 5th Street resident Mitch Deighan, who was board president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association from 1990 to 1994. He, along with his late partner Mike Anderson, originally bought the lots at a city sheriff’s sale piece by piece at a time when Northern Liberties was “written off as a neighborhood which would never amount to anything.” They then assembled an open space project, which was originally conceived to be a bird sanctuary and that they named “the Orkney Project.”
“When we landed back here in 1979 to make a life together, we were stunned by the awe of the wilderness from the abandonment,” Deighan said. “So we thought that the only way the neighborhood could possibly preserve this is through ownership.”
Deighan continued that now the neighborhood has gotten behind his and Anderson’s dream to carry the space’s stewardship on to subsequent generations. Always a project focused around love for the city and its future, he is happy to see the community has banded together to help ensure the land will not come to be developed on, and has no issue with selling the lot to the neighborhood instead. Ultimately, he hopes the deeds will come to be held by the Northern Liberties Action Committee, the same 501c3 nonprofit he helped create to hold the deed of Liberty Lands, a two-acre park on a reclaimed vacant on N. 3rd Street.
Spearheading the preservation of the “last wilderness” of Northern Liberties, neighbors Sara Hirschler, Tony Hochstetler and Donald Phillips initially talked about the four lots that run between Reno and Myrtle streets being up for sale at the time, and their individual desires to transform it into a place for the community to experience nature rather than see it developed. Thus, they decided to work together to preserve the natural setting.
“There’s no elbow room here,” Phillips said. “Every lot is getting filled in, and back here is a special place. It’s quiet with birds and other animals.”
To get started, they had more than 55 people come out to a meeting at the Northern Liberties Community Center. The three-man steering committee noticed other people were just as passionate as they were about saving the green space.
“These lots would actually turn into four townhomes if it was sold [to a developer],” Hochstetler said. “In April, we got a group of about 50 people together on Earth Day to help transform the site. We just wanted to keep it somewhat natural, so all we brought in was the mulch and used the stones that were there to make the path to give it a sense of place.”
Since the physical transformation of the lots, “the Orkney Project,” now lead by the Friends of Orkney Park, a 1-month-old nonprofit organization, must fundraise to obtain approximately $650,000 to purchase all four from Deighan.
“What we would like to do is raise a portion of the funds,” Hochstetler said. “If we can at least raise a portion of it, we’re hoping to apply for grants and do matching funds, but we actually need to get the ball rolling. That’s what this fundraiser is all about.”
Going into the night’s event with a goal to raise $3,000, the Friends of Orkney Park were able to capture a large turnout, with dozens of neighbors coming out to show their support. One neighborhood resident, Bill Keenan, even gave a check for $100, as did his girlfriend, Melissa, who lives in New York.
“I came out to support the fundraiser because of the organizer’s mission in keeping a green space alive in the park,” said Joann Cain, a resident of Lawrence and Brown streets. “It’s important that city living offers parks and green spaces. They become unique to the city, and give the city kids the opportunity to experience them.”
The organization plans to continue hosting fundraising events in the future. To get involved in its efforts, email OrkneyParkProject@gmail.com or visit Orkney Park Project on Facebook.