An Oral History Project


Park Stories – Ep. 6 – John Hewitt remembers Frankford Creek

By Rita Yelda

A Water Wonderland: John Hewitt Recalls Frankford Creek in the 1970s

Tookany/Tacony-Frankford (TTF) Watershed Partnership is partnering with Ambrose Liu of the Olney Culture Lab and Dr. Matthew Smalarz of Manor College to record in-person interviews with community members as part of a two-year Tacony Creek Park Stories project. Manor College, which sits along the Jenkintown Creek at the headwaters of the TTF watershed, is developing an Oral History repository.

Tacony Creek Park Stories is a two-part effort collecting and sharing park and neighborhood history and memories, and then working with local artists to bring these stories to life, making the collective story of Tacony Creek Park more accessible to the community. As part of this project, TTF is proud to share this blog with you based on an October 2018 interview with John Hewitt, a Frankford Historical Society volunteer who has roots in Frankford.

When John Hewitt was growing up in the Frankford section of Tookany Creek in the 1970’s, he and his friends used the creek as a playground. Young and rebellious, John and his pals would keep bottles of wine cold in the creek, or drift through the tunnels of Frankford Creek as close to the Delaware River as possible, being on high alert for rain. John also could never lie to his parents about being in the water because of the distinct smell he would carry afterwards. While not advised, these memories bring John back to a simpler time when he lived in the area until his late teen years.

“Well, the creek’s right there, and at that park, we kind of hung at that park there,” says John of his childhood. “Sometimes we would drift all the way down, not as far the Delaware River but near it. We used to try to see how far we could go; and going through the tunnels is one of my early experiences getting introduced to the Frankford Creek.”

The creek grew to hold a different significance for John as he got into professional photography, first working freelance for local newspapers and then beginning a career in wedding photography. John recognized the “crisp, clear blue” of the Tookany Creek, which is why he took couples’ along the parkway.

The blooming flowers, fall leaves, and wooden bridges all made appearances in John’s photos and continue to leave an impression on him when discussing the area today. John is not only a Frankford Historical Society volunteer, but he’s had a long-time history of his own with the creek.

Water quality within the creek has been a long-time concern, including during John’s time living in the area. He recalls both the waterfall at Adams Avenue and most of Frankford Creek looking dirty. “I’ve seen where [the creek] was a lot of different colors…” John recounts about the area near Adams Avenue. Near Kensington Avenue, kids would jump into the creek and one of those times John shockingly saw a girl’s hair start on fire. “I think there was a company right there that was pumping something in the water, and out of nowhere, it just caught on fire. And we stopped swimming in that area right there,” says John.

Flooding and stormwater pollution remained a concern for the creek, and repairs had been made over the years to address the problem. During Hurricane Agnes in 1972, John recalls the tunnels of Frankford Creek flooding and gushing to the brim. Unexpected flooding and safety issues are one of the biggest reasons not to travel on the water through the tunnels, but that didn’t stop John from taking risks.

Growing up in the area, John observed fishermen on Frankford Creek near the Delaware River but never took part. Meanwhile, John’s father was an avid fisherman who found relaxation and sport in having the creek nearby. Now living in Bridgeburg, John continues to have access to local waterways, including the Allegheny River and the tributary Pine Creek. John’s son recently convinced him to follow in his father’s footsteps by taking a fishing outing on the river and they caught six fish, including eel and catfish.

“You know, my father died… when I was thirteen, so I kind of wanted to kind of go [out fishing] with him to see because he was always saying, ‘Oh it’s fishing, oh it’s fishing!’”

Do you have a story to share? Whether you’ve been visiting the park for 50 years or just a few months, we’d love to hear from you. We are committed to gathering stories from the wide range of perspectives in our culturally and ethnically diverse park community. Interested in sharing your stories from the park? Contact robin@ttfwatershed.org or call 215-744-1853. This project has been made possible with support from the Joseph Robert Foundation.

Interested in seeing the history of the Frankford Creek up close? Join us for the tour, Trails Through Time on November 16!


Park Stories – Ep. 5 – Tacony Tookany Creek Creates a Lasting Impression on Dan Donahue

By Rita Yelda

Tookany/Tacony-Frankford (TTF) Watershed Partnership is partnering with Ambrose Liu of the Olney Culture Lab and Dr. Matthew Smalarz of Manor College to record in-person interviews with community members as part of a two-year Tacony Creek Park Stories project. Manor College, which sits along the Jenkintown Creek at the headwaters of the TTF watershed, is developing an Oral History repository.

Tacony Creek Park Stories is a two-part effort collecting and sharing park and neighborhood history and memories, and then working with local artists to bring these stories to life, making the collective story of Tacony Creek Park more accessible to the community. As part of this project, TTF is proud to share this blog with you based on a December 2018 interview with Dan Donahue, a Philadelphia resident with family history in Olney.

Our childhood experiences still inform who we are today as adults. Formative experiences such as playing on swings, falling in the creek, or spotting a new bird can become etched in our memory. This can certainly be said for Philadelphia resident Dan Donahue, who grew up in Olney and has lasting memories of Tacony/Tookany Creek and what it meant for him to be able to play outside.

With his mother and two grandmothers living in Olney and Feltonville beginning in the ‘’40s and ‘50s, Dan’s family is no stranger to Northeast Philadelphia. His grandmothers, mother, and his seven siblings all grew up in the area during different decades, watching the neighborhood grow and change with them.

“My one grandmom lived at Fifth and Fisher, which is in Olney; my other grandmom lived on Second Street, Second and Wyoming, which I think technically is Feltonville. But they were connected by Incarnation Parish, which is at Fifth and Lindley, which is kind of in the middle,” Dan explains. “We lived on a little street around the corner from my grandmother in Feltonville/Olney kind of area, just under the boulevard… it was actually a little street called Mentor Street.”

Growing up in a developed, urban environment, space for biking, walking, and relaxing in nature can seem few and far between. But like many children, growing up for Dan meant not staying inside the house during the summer. It was during this time that Dan began to realize the important role of green, open space for him and his siblings.

“We lived in a very little, kind of tight little street with no green around us whatsoever,” recalls Dan. Though Dan’s parents moved to New Jersey in the 1970’s, he and his siblings would come back to visit their grandmothers regularly. The children would spend weeks at a time in Feltonville and Olney during the summer, leading to the discovery of Tacony/Tookany Creek. Almost fifty years later, Dan and his sisters remember the playground near the Tacony/Tookany Creek and the time they spent playing near its banks.

“Olney, but even more so Feltonville, there wasn’t greenspace, so going there was probably a really big deal for us and that’s why all my sisters remember it so well, and we talk about Tacony/Tookany Creek all the time,” he says.

This exposure to open, green space created an enthusiasm about urban environmentalism within Dan and contributed to his passion for preserving greenspace in Philadelphia. Now living in Center City, Dan admires projects like Schuylkill Banks and the converting of old railroad tracks into parks and trails. “I just love when they kind of take areas and not only take advantage of the greenspace, but make public access to it.”

Tacony/Tookany Creek has provided an opportunity for Dan, and likely many other children, to access the natural world when they might not have otherwise. “In the ‘70s, Tacony/Tookany Creek was probably our only access to greenspace, because we didn’t really leave the city much,” adds Dan. “I’m positive that Tacony/Tookany Creek had a major impact on all of us appreciating nature, because it was our only exposure to nature. Like, we didn’t go to the beach. We didn’t go to the Poconos.”


Park Stories – Ep. 4 – Tom and Savannah McHale

By Rita Yelda

TTF is partnering with Ambrose Liu of the Olney Culture Lab and Dr. Matthew Smalarz of Manor College to record in-person interviews with community members as part of a two-year Tacony Creek Park Stories project. Manor College, which sits along the Jenkintown Creek at the headwaters of the TTF watershed, is developing an Oral History repository.

Tacony Creek Park Stories is a two-part effort collecting and sharing park and neighborhood history and memories, and then working with local artists to bring these stories to life, making the collective story of Tacony Creek Park more accessible to the community. As part of this project, TTF is proud to share this blog based on a November 2018 interview with Tom and Savannah McHale, residents of an historic Whitaker mill home bordering Tacony Creek Park.

Tom McHale’s family has lived near Tacony Creek Park since the 1960s, and in 1991 purchased an historic home once owned by the Whitaker family. The Whitakers had a family-owned wool mill on Tacony Creek in the early 1800s that operated until the 1970s. By 1813, a series of homes were completed adjacent to the mill to be utilized by the Whitakers’ workers, visitors, and family members. While many of these homes fell victim to arson in 1975 and thus were knocked down, the McHales were able to purchase an intact home, which had been a long-time dream for Tom’s mother.

Some of Tom’s favorite memories would come from living in the home and its proximity to Tacony Creek Park, such as taking his dog for walks and spending time with neighborhood friends. “We’d always be out there playing, and it always gave me an appreciation for the park and taking care of it,” says Tom. While Tom moved to Center City Philadelphia in his twenties, his love for the park and the community brought him back to the family home with his wife Savannah in Spring 2018.

The couple enjoy the history of the property so much, they held their marriage ceremony in the yard near the forest bordering Tacony Creek Park. “The park, you know, the house – there’s so much character. It’s just such an amazing place to be,” says Savannah.

During Tom’s departure from the neighborhood, he followed TTF on social media to see progress and programming taking place in Tacony Creek Park, and he also heard from his mother first-hand that the neighborhood was seeing improvements. Upon moving back to the area some ten years later, Tom says he sees more wildlife and plants than he ever remembers seeing as a child, and that the crime, car fires, and police chases through the area have greatly decreased.

Tom reflects on the changes by saying: “…I think it also keeps the creek cleaner by having these grasses grow. So seeing the new plants, grasses, how that is protecting the creek from pollutants, how it’s fostering wildlife, that many more gates were put up blocking access to  the ATVs and four-wheelers that can tear up the dirt and mud and scare away the animals, and all these community walks that have been hosted, have all been small examples over the last decade of progress that was not there when I was a kid, that’s great to see now.”

“When we moved in here, I got my camera back out and rediscovered my love for photography and started photographing all the wildlife in the park,” Savannah says. She spent last summer photographing hummingbirds, and continues to find inspiration from the wildlife, as currently she’s keeping an eye out for a fox that’s said to be roving the area.

Robin Irizarry, who works as TTF Philadelphia Watershed Coordinator, found Savannah’s nature photos on iNaturalist and invited her and Tom to attend park programs. “Meeting them and seeing the work that they’ve done and just how much he knows about the local wildlife and plants… that has really inspired me to get more involved,” says Savannah “…Just his passion for keeping the park clean… and just asking the community for ideas on how to get the rest of the community involved in the parks is really remarkable to me.”

The programming TTF offers is an opportunity to get people out and interested in the park so they become invested in the area and defend it, and that’s a big part of what Tom and Savannah love about the organization and what got them involved. Tom explains that the organization’s community walks, clean ups, and block parties are bringing the community together around a shared resource that provides common ground.

Tom’s hope for the future is that more people become interested in the park and that it becomes safer for everybody to enjoy. He adds: “And if kids or anyone can take a walk in the park and that somehow inspires them or informs them to care about conservation and to care about the environment and the world we live in in ways different from just the grind of our daily lives but the bigger picture, then that’s what I would hope is the purpose of the park.” Savannah’s outlook for the future of the park? “Less dirt bikes, more animals.”


Park Stories – Ep. 3 – The Past and Future of Tacony Creek Park: An Interview with Lisa Kuzma, Director of Olney Christian School

By Rita Yelda

Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership (TTF) is partnering with Ambrose Liu of the Olney Culture Lab and Dr. Matthew Smalarz of Manor College to record in-person interviews with community members as part of a two-year Tacony Creek Park Stories project. Manor College, which sits along the Jenkintown Creek at the headwaters of the TTF watershed, is developing an Oral History repository.

Tacony Creek Park Stories is a two-part effort collecting and sharing park and neighborhood history and memories, and then working with local artists to bring these stories to life, making the collective story of Tacony Creek Park more accessible to the community. As part of this project, TTF Watershed Partnership is proud to share this blog with you based on an October 2018 interview with Lisa Kuzma, Director of Olney Christian School.

Olney is a neighborhood in Philadelphia that Lisa Kuzma knows well. It’s where she works, exercises, explores, and has lived for about twenty years. Lisa is candid about the immense challenges that Tacony Creek Park faced when she first moved to the neighborhood.

“My earliest memory was going for a walk with a friend… I was new to this neighborhood, I just moved in not that long ago,” she begins. “So, we started walking down the path together… and a guy was coming the other direction and he’s like ‘You two need to turn around and take yourselves out of the park. It’s not safe for you to be here.”

In 1999, when Lisa worked for the after-school program at a New Life Church in Olney, options for students to enjoy the outdoors were limited. Still wanting the students to have fresh air and open space to enjoy, Lisa took the students out to Tacony Creek Park to give them “the pleasure of rolling down a hill, playing in the dirt… just all the things that they love to do; [things] that I think kids should be able to do.”

However, when they were at the park, extra adult supervision was necessary and tight reigns had to be kept on the students to avoid facing leash-less dogs or other trouble. Along with this lack of safety in Tacony Creek Park at the time, the cleanliness of the creek was questionable. The creek had a stench and was littered with toppled over grocery carts and trash.

Twenty years later, Lisa says she’s seen the park’s safety and the creek’s cleanliness improve, which she attributes largely to TTF’s commitment to rolling up their sleeves and doing the hard work. “The stream is now perfectly clean,” Lisa says with a smile. “And the work that they’ve done on the trail – that makes the trail accessible.”

Lisa has no hesitation to use the park now, utilizing it herself for biking and running, and she feels better about the students going there as well. “We don’t have the same concerns that we did 10, 15 years ago,” she adds.

TTF’s work doesn’t stop in the park, as they’ve also engaged Lisa’s students at Olney Christian School in the classroom by conducting environmental education and adding to the students’ understanding of the natural world.

Students can now recognize bird calls and have planted a rain garden on the side of the school to control stormwater.

Students were also taught about the connection between stormwater pollution and drinking water, which the students then proceeded to educate their community about.

TTF’s dedication and sheer elbow grease over the years has acted as a wake-up call toward the stewardship of the park for Lisa. This understanding of personal responsibility and giving back is also mirrored in Lisa’s faith, “[God] doesn’t just hand out gifts and then let you trash them.”

After twenty years of growth at Tacony Creek Park, Lisa hopes to see continued improvement over the next ten years, as well.

“What I see the very beginnings of, that I would really love to see more, is families taking their own initiative to spend time in the park… I would love it to be a place that you could wander in and people are having picnics, people are sitting around reading a book; [a place] that the kids are up and down the trail.”


Park Stories – Ep. 2 – Meet Elaine Johnson and Latinas In Motion

Tacony Creek Park Provides Opportunities for Physical Fitness for All Ages

By Rita Yelda

TTF is partnering with Ambrose Liu of the Olney Culture Lab and Dr. Matthew Smalarz of Manor College to record in-person interviews with community members. Manor College, which sits along the Jenkintown Creek at the headwaters of the TTF watershed, is developing an Oral History repository.

A native Philadelphian and founder of the nonprofit Latinas In Motion, Elaine Johnson was first introduced to Tacony Creek Park in 2014 by Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership (TTF). Since then, the park has been a source of health and wellness for members of her organization, as well as her own family. In the second episode of Park Stories: An Oral History of Tacony Creek Park, Ambrose Liu sits down with Elaine to discuss her strongest memories of the park and its changes through the years.

With the 2012 founding of Latinas In Motion, Elaine Johnson aimed to encourage other women of color to stay active and create a sense of motivating team camaraderie. After all, running and walking is the most accessible type of physical fitness because it’s free, and therefore it doesn’t exclude anyone based on inability to pay an entrance fee. Elaine shares that growing up in inner city North Philadelphia, it wasn’t always safe to play outside, and health and wellness wasn’t typical conversation around the dinner table. Upon her research, she also found that women of color have higher rates of obesity, heart diseases, and diabetes, all of which physical fitness can help to address. Not only is staying active important for physical health, it’s also acted as a confidence boost for Elaine and has strengthened her personal relationships.

“Before, I think being outside made me super uncomfortable… I think I wasn’t comfortable enough with myself to be comfortable with silence,” says Elaine. “Now, it’s my peace.”

When Elaine first heard about TTF six or seven years ago, the organization had reached out to her about the first annual Healthy Trails 5K in Tacony Creek Park, which she then volunteered to help with. Before TTF, Elaine didn’t know Tacony Creek Park existed, but now she visits often and raises awareness of the park amongst her fellow runners. Latinas In Motion has also held their annual 5K in Tacony Creek Park for the last five years, creating another opportunity to showcase what the park has to offer.

TTF staff gave Elaine her first tour of the park to familiarize her with the terrain. Elaine describes her tour of Tacony Creek Park as “…so magical, because if you don’t know about the park, you don’t know that it exists. And once you’re in the park, it doesn’t feel like Philly. It feels so peaceful and serene.”

Now a champion for the park, Elaine tells other runners and walkers about the park as a safe, accessible alternative to stop-and-go running and walking on city sidewalks. She also takes part in a clean up of the park every year before Latinas In Motion’s 5K and has seen first-hand how these clean ups give people a sense of investment in the park’s future. The partnership between Latinas In Motion and TTF is one that brings increased activity to Tacony Creek Park and elevates the park’s visibility. In 2016, TTF recognized LIM with the annual Friend of the Watershed Milestone Award!

Since Elaine began working with TTF, she’s been impressed with the organization’s ability to keep Tacony Creek Park safe and clean over the years and described the organization as “little angels” that care about the park. Elaine adds that TTF has a special ability to make environmental education accessible, even for those who don’t know a lot about the natural world, and the organization has taught her a lot about nature.

Getting involved with Latinas In Motion and TTF has changed the conversation for Elaine’s family by exposing them to the outdoors and instilling the importance of physical fitness to create a healthier generation. Elaine’s 7-year-old daughter finished her first 5K last year, something Elaine didn’t do until she was in her 20s; and her son sees her lacing up her shoes and asks if she’s going to work out, creating a dialogue and awareness around fitness that she didn’t have growing up. Elaine’s mother and sisters have even come around to participating in running and walking, though it took a few years. Elaine states that staying committed and consistent on her own encouraged other people to follow. It’s like “planting seeds” and waiting for them to bloom, she explains.

Elaine’s hope the future of Tacony Creek Park is to act as a location for families to enjoy quiet time and conversations, so that even more people take advantage of what the park has to offer. Tacony Creek Park is a “gem” that she wants the community to know about and enjoy.

We are so proud to share this interview with Elaine Johnson, the second in our two-year Tacony Creek Park Stories project. This two part effort is collecting and sharing park and neighborhood history and memories, and then working with local artists to bring these stories to life, making the collective story of our park more accessible to our community.

Do you have a story to share? Whether you’ve been visiting the park for 50 years or just a few months, we’d love to hear from you. We are committed to gathering stories from the wide range of perspectives in our culturally and ethnically diverse park community. Interested in sharing your stories from the park? Contact robin@ttfwatershed.org or call 215-744-1853. This project has been made possible with support from the Joseph Robert Foundation.


Park Stories – Ep. 1 – Fred Maurer, Friends of Tacony Creek Park

We are so proud to share this interview with Fred Maurer, the first in our two-year Tacony Creek Park Stories project. This two part effort is collecting and sharing park and neighborhood history and memories, and then working with local artists to bring these stories to life, making the collective story of our park more accessible to our community.

TTF is partnering with Ambrose Liu of the Olney Culture Lab and Dr. Matthew Smalarz of Manor College to record in-person interviews with community members. Manor College (which sits along the Jenkintown Creek at the headwaters of the TTF watershed) is developing an Oral History repository.

Fred Maurer (second from right) receiving the TTF Legacy Award in 2016.

A native Philadelphian and longtime Olney resident, Fred Maurer has been a member of the Friends of Tacony Creek Park for more than 25 years, serving as Vice President of Conservation Matters. He has dedicated countless hours to the park’s conservation, and even today, you can find him out on the trail, cleaning up the park.

In the first episode of Park Stories: An Oral History of Tacony Creek Park, Maurer sits down with Dr. Matthew Smalarz, Chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Manor College, to discuss Maurer’s strongest memories of the park and its changes through the years, including the following indexed segments:

0:30 – Growing up in Kensington, moving to Olney, horse-drawn wagon rides, and Mustang Stables.

…there are more stables that were private stables. These were too…public ones and one is called mustang stable.  So, that was a place where you began the hay ride and then you went up to the end of the available land and then when you got to the end, near the Roosevelt Boulevard, remember the boulevard started in 1927, that kind of more or less terminated easy access for park users. At the end, near the Roosevelt Boulevard, there was a field…fence where they could stop and have a picnic at that location, you had to bring refreshments, in this area around the boulevard. When I checked it, before, there’s still some remnants of the stable I’d been (at) for the end of the trip. Basically, that’s my early experience and I’ll say I stop at that point. I valued it.  

4:30 – The changes in recreational use before and after WWII, and the development of the park’s first recreational building at Whitaker Ave.

8:30 – Park improvements in the 1970s made possible by U.S. Bicentennial funding, including a hard bicycle path, picnic groves, fire rings, and last but not least: bridges!

14:15 – Cold War-era development plans and how losing a $25 million William Penn Foundation grant actually ended up saving the park

20:00 – Tacony Creek’s influence on Fred’s views on the environment, including how several months hiking the Appalachian Trail led to 30 years working on it

22:30 – Parks as a place of refuge during 9/11

30:15 – Changes in the communities around the park and the educational void left by the loss of funding for Park Guards

34:15 – This year’s major park improvement at Adams Avenue, thanks to PennDOT

37:45 – What Tacony Creek means to Fred after all these years

CLICK HERE to listen to the full interview with Fred Maurer.


Do you have a story to share? Whether you’ve been visiting the park for 50 years or just a few months, we’d love to hear from you. We are committed to gathering stories from the wide range of perspectives in our culturally and ethnically diverse park community.

Interested in sharing your stories from the park? Contact robin@ttfwatershed.org or call 215-744-1853.

This project has been made possible with support from the Joseph Robert Foundation.


Listen to the Collection of the Tookany/Tacony Creek Watershed Oral History Project

Special Thanks To 


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