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The Philadelphia artist who brought to life Northern Liberties’ first public park died Sunday of COVID-19. Jesse Gardner left behind a wife and two teenage daughters — as well as a legacy of community and stubborn enthusiasm. That trait would eventually distance him from some of those he worked alongside to build an oasis out of rubble.
In the 1990s, he was the force behind turning a crumbling tannery into legit parkland. The result, Liberty Lands Park, became the heart of a transforming neighborhood.
Gardner, a former landscape architect from Wisconsin who lived in New England and Canada before landing in Philly, was described by neighbors as “undauntable.” Without his tenacity, they wonder what NoLibs would look like today.
“None of us working on it realized how special it was, until you see what it becomes,” said William Reed, co-owner of neighborhood tavern Standard Tap. “Without Jesse, a lot of it would’ve sputtered out.”
In his early 60s, Gardner spent weeks on a ventilator, according to his Instagram, before ultimately succumbing to the virus that has killed more than 2,000 Philadelphians.
“I’m heartbroken,” said Janet Finegar, co-coordinator of the Friends of Liberty Lands Park group. “This is a tiny neighborhood. We know each other really well. It’s the loss of a family member.
Through most of the 20th century, the Northern Liberties area was industrial.
Set along the Delaware River just above the Ben Franklin Bridge, it was defined architecturally by massive, hulking facilities, like the tannery and the four-building Ortlieb brewery complex. By the turn of the millennium, where there weren’t warehouses, there were sparse lots and often-vacant rowhomes.
“We’d look down the street and see three cars parked for several blocks,” Reed said. “We’d look out there and there’d be nobody past dark.”
Turning 40 volunteers into an landscape engineers
The neighborhood’s rebirth began in the ’90s. Some proprietors fixed up corners and moved in, like Reed, who opened Standard Tap at 2nd and Poplar at the turn of the millennium.
Gardner was living in Chinatown when Northern Liberties resident Dennis Haugh recruited him to design Liberty Lands Park, offering compensation via a small grant.
The local civic association had hoped to turn the building between 3rd and American, Laurel and Wildey into senior housing. But when a fire erupted in the old tannery there in the mid-90s, it reduced the historic structure to two acres of detritus.
Once commissioned, Gardner developed a vision for the lot. He saw wide open green space — the first in decades for the 19123 ZIP code.
With no budget to hire workers, he decided to recruit neighbors. His uniquely encouraging personality, former friends say, helped the dozens of volunteers put in the effort to turn a concrete lot into a park in just a year. Roughly 40 residents would toil every day, then head to Silk City Diner to relax, covered in filth.
To this day, park friends group coordinator Finegar said when her husband hears the phrase “good job,” he thinks of Gardner.
“He said it every five minutes,” Finegar said. “Jesse was the only one who had any real idea what he was doing. He was there behind us all the time saying, ‘Good job.’”
Working with the guy came with some obstacles. He was “really freaking stubborn,” Finegar said, sometimes to a fault. In recent years, Gardner moved from Northern Liberties to Ardmore. He fell out of touch with his close Philly circle as he posted hard-to-swallow Facebook rants against Black Lives Matter.
“He had a streak of righteousness,” said Reed, of Standard Tap. “I blame some of the misinformation and turbulence of the political world. I think many good-hearted, well-meaning people have been affected by the toxic nature of some of that discourse.”
Still, many of the long-time NoLibs folks consider the creation of Liberty Lands Park to be the first community-building exercise in the neighborhood.
Along the perimeter, the trees and rose bushes he planted still give way to a community garden inside. When there’s not a pandemic raging, the park is used for festivals, picnics, performances, art classes and other community fun.
Those who cherish the space still credit Jesse’s vision. He was, Finegar said, the project’s “heart and soul.”