by Len Lear
One of the main attractions of living in northwest Philadelphia, if not the number one attraction, is the section of Fairmount Park that courses through big swaths of Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Germantown, Roxborough and East Falls. Fairmount Park consists of more than 100 parks, squares and green spaces totaling approximately 11,000 acres. It is believed to be the largest landscaped urban park system in the world.
By contrast, for example, Central Park, the object of a mountain of New York boasting, is a mere 1,000 acres, or less than 10 percent the size of Fairmount Park. If you have ever enjoyed jogging in the park, walking your dog, bicycling, horseback riding, picnicking, etc., you will undoubtedly enjoy an illustrated lecture based on the newly published book, “City in a Park,” presented by its authors, James McClelland and Lynn Miller, on Wednesday, June 15, 6:30 p.m., at the Falls of Schuylkill Library, 3501 Midvale Ave. in East Falls. The presentation is hosted by the East Falls Historical Society.
Focusing on the history of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, the authors will chronicle, with stunning photographs accompanying the narrative, the continuing efforts to create what founder William Penn sought: a “greene countrie town.” This talk will be of particular interest to residents of the northwest Philadelphia communities who can readily access the park land along the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek.
Copies of “City in a Park” will be available for autographing and purchase. Beth Kephart, one of Philly’s most prolific authors who wrote “Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River,” described “City in a Park” this way: “In our gridded city of brick and stone, we take solace from the open spaces — the burst of azaleas along the Schuylkill River, the water fountain in Rittenhouse Square, the quiet repose of Laurel Hill, the ghosts of the Centennial Exhibition. Encyclopedic in its reach and thoughtful in its composition, ‘City in a Park’ unfolds the history of Philadelphia’s expansive, sometimes surprising municipal park against the backdrop of recent and ongoing grand renewals. It reminds us of the treasures we have in our shared back, front and side yards.”
Authors Miller and McClelland, both center city residents, have known each other for more than 40 years. McClelland went through Philadelphia public schools and attended the Charles Morris Price School of Journalism. Miller has BA and MA degrees from the University of Kansas and a PhD in political science from Princeton.
“We are both old, very old,” Miller told us (just half-kidding) last week. “To give you an idea, we were born before World War II but after the Spanish-American War. That’s enough information. Jim is a Philadelphia native and has never lived anywhere else, apart from time he served in the U.S. Army many years ago.
“I am a native of Dodge City, Kansas, who moved to Philadelphia in 1969 when I was offered a position as Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple. I’m now retired from Temple as Professor Emeritus.”
How did the book come about? “Several years ago, Jim suggested that we collaborate on a book about Fairmount Park, pointing out that it was one of the nation’s most important urban parks and that it had never had a thorough historical study done about it. He would tell you that he thought the project too big to take on by himself, and he thought my experience in scholarly writing would be useful.
“I warmed to the idea once I realized it would be fascinating to explore in depth what I only knew superficially about this park system that I’ve explored as a citizen for so many years. So, our goal was to provide a book that would be useful and interesting for people living in the Philadelphia area who are acquainted with Fairmount Park, and might be valuable as well to historians, parks advocates, urban planners and students.”
The duo first talked about the project in 2011 and began real research late that year. A year or so later, they had a contract from Temple University Press…“We delivered a completed draft to the Press in 2014,” said Lynn. “We then followed up with illustrations, including a good many photos we took ourselves, plus historic images provided by various institutions in the city. Production took about a year.
“Jim tells me he was most surprised — or maybe interested — in learning the distinct histories of the various country houses that dot the parks. I second that.”
Here are some short answers to other questions we asked the authors:
• What is the best advice you ever received? “If you fall, get up and go again.” (Jim). “Do the work you feel most passionate about; then it isn’t work.” (Lynn).
• What do you do in your spare time? “Concerts and theater.” (Jim). Ditto for Lynn, but he is also a painter, and tries to do that a little more than in his “spare” time.
• If you could spend time with anyone on earth, who would it be? “The Dalai Lama.” (Jim). “I can’t narrow mine to one, but would include Mikhail Gorbachev and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” (Lynn).
Refreshments will follow the June 15 presentation. The program is free and open to all. More information at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-438- 8539. (2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the name “East Falls.” More details at www.eastfallshistoricalsociety.com)