If it’s summer in Roxborough, Gorgas Park is the place to be, with its popular summer concert series, and – coming July 31! – the Parks on Tap pop-up beer garden. Widely considered the Central Park of Roxborough, Gorgas is a thriving hub of the community.
But it wasn’t always that way. Not too long ago, the park was a surprising shambles, underfunded and poorly maintained. A huge piece of this recent transformation is John Boyce.
Now a retired postal worker, the Roxborough native – born to parents who still live today on Lyceum Avenue along The Wall – remembers a disheveled Gorgas Park. Back in the mid-'90s, “I would walk past here every day to deliver the mail,” he told me on a recent morning at the park, “and the place was entirely overgrown,” as the city only cut the grass three times annually: Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Labor Day.
“So in 1996, myself and a bunch of other people were inspired to start the Friends of Gorgas Park,” he continued. There were then only a handful of Friends groups, and Gorgas’ became a pilot project, a partnership with the city and the Fairmount Park Conservancy. John became president, a position he still holds today, 23 years later.
And the park has thrived from the Friends’ attention.
“Since 1997, “ he told me, “we've invested about $1.4 million in improvements,” funds the Friends have raised through grants from the city, the state, foundations, and more, plus donations from friends and corporate sponsors of their events. Those improvements include a restoration of the park house, a new gazebo, a new and expanded playground, a new ballfield, two new sets of entrance steps along with a new park entrance at Ridge and Hermitage, a new park sign on Ridge Avenue, and a restoration of the 1920 war memorial, once the centerpiece of the park. Oh, and the Friends group mows the grass, which is now impeccably groomed.
Today, he guesses some 10,000 people come out for park events, from the concert series to the Harvest Festival. Not bad.
Even its gardens are thriving, native pollinator gardens planted in at least one case with the help of Saul High School students, and the gardens have won blue ribbons from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society multiple times. As we visited the gardens, he could name all the plants placed there – and many of the insects visiting them.
While the Friends group has about 50 active volunteers, John admits “I’ve been the constant,” and today, 23 years in, he still averages “about 20 hours per week throughout the year, which becomes more intense in the summer months. It’s labor intensive, but I enjoy it. This is my vocation in life; I'm driven to do it.”
“John is a legend in the community,” says Celeste Hardester, the president of the Central Roxborough Civic Association. “Everyone knows him, and if you want a cheerleader on an issue he cares about, you are guaranteed to have a passionate voice from him. He makes me smile – what a good thing to be able to say about someone.”
Kay Sykora, active in the same civic group and herself the former head of the Manayunk Development Corporation, agrees.
“If you look at the parks and greening in the area,” she wrote to me via email, “John led the way in an enthusiastic upbeat style that is all his own. From improving a little park in Wissahickon, to cleaning up Kendrick Rec Center, which was covered in graffiti (encouraging pride and improvements) to planting Ridge Avenue with trees at a time that this community did not embrace trees, and finally Gorgas Park, John has changed the look of Roxborough. And as Celeste has said, he has done all this and makes us all smile.”
James Harry Calamia, executive director of the Roxborough Development Corporation, offered, “Through John’s contagious energy and passion he influences the civic spirit of all of those around him. For Roxborough this impact is immeasurable but exemplified most in the center of our community at Gorgas Park.”
Boyce still lives in Roxborough, of course.
“I’ve been here all my life – this place is in my marrow. You get an attachment and a commitment at a very deep level. That’s what Roxborough-Manayunk is to me, a place with roots,” he mused, quoting the slogan one can see around town in various places.
John sees his work as giving back to the community.
“I grew up at Kendrick,” he said, “and spent my childhood tearing up the fields playing sports. Now I’m preserving them.”
Then he remembered one of his favorite movie scenes, in the 1985 Harrison Ford movie "Witness."
“Its director Peter Weir said the most important scene in the movie was the Amish barn raising, where the community came together to put up that barn. That’s what we’re doing here: we’re building something.”
And that something is very special. While the Friends group has a lot of friends, it clearly has one best friend: John Boyce. On behalf of Roxborough, thank you, John.