The small square of land on Spring Garden Street near the I-95 overpass doesn’t look like much, especially with winter frost delaying plantings until spring.
But Madison Memorial — or “Doughboy Park,” as it is dubbed by neighbors due to its World War I memorial statue — represents an important step in the city’s ongoing effort to unite neighborhoods with the waterfront.
“We’re making a lot of progress in individual connections,” said planner Andrew Szekla of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. “I don’t think there’s ever been more action or momentum than in the last several years.”
“Several things are starting to happen along that corridor,” said planner Karen Thompson of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. “Obviously, there’s the idea of Spring Garden as a connector street to the waterfront. ... The park is first step of that.”
“It’s a real transit hub. ... and a really important connector between the neighborhood and mass transit, mass transit and the river and the neighborhood and the river,” said Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, who spearheaded the renovation.
Long-discussed park renovations were finished about two weeks ago. Design firm DIGSAU included benches, a path for public transit commuters, and green amenities.
But Ruben said that the park renovation was merely one component of a package of proposed improvements.
“The main one is doing some kind of light-based installation under the Spring Garden overpass to make it brighter and less intimidating to navigate, not only to get to mass transit, but to get through it to the waterfront,” he said. “This park is right next to the underpass and is a key part of the experience of going to and from the underpass. It will improve the area and the impression of safety.”
What’s fat about the Doughboy?
The park’s statue has a history of its own, moving from Fifth and Spring Garden streets to 17th and Spring Garden due to neglect.
Demands in 1981 for its return to Northern Liberties became a rallying cry for neighbors that united the community and helped spur the area’s resurgence, resident Mary Dankanis said.
“At that time, it was important because Northern Liberties in 1980 needed some kind of focal point to get the neighborhood back together,” Dankanis said. “At one of the civic meetings, somebody yelled out, ‘Let’s get the Doughboy back!’ We did and that was like our first renaissance.
“I absolutely saw the neighborhood change after its return. And right now, it seems to be having another little renaissance.”