By Gary Puleo
NORRISTOWN >> It’s been nearly four years since a magic dragon floated up the Schuylkill River to cast a spell in a land that was far from Honnah Lee.
Squalid and far removed from its glory days as an outdoor destination, Norristown’s Riverfront Park, perched beside the Schuylkill River at the foot of Haws Avenue, was gradually transformed by the grand 41-foot Chinese serpent that arrived in search of a new home, transporting the Dragon Boat Club and the club’s leader, Robin Parker.
“I heard all this bad stuff about the park,” Parker said in the spring of 2013. “Perception is everything, so we’ve been working hard to change the image of the park. We’re making strides little by little.”
Those strides included yanking out weeds, power-washing surfaces, engaging volunteer security surveillance from nearby residents — who were affectionately dubbed “rangers” — and engineering the creation of a vibrant dragon mural on the side of the club’s boathouse.
Now known as the Dragon Boat Club of Norristown, the group is still a vital part of Riverfront Part’s ongoing revival, but Parker and her crew can’t do it all, noted Norristown native and author Elena Santangelo, who is passionate about sharing her enthusiasm for the park she’s known for many years.
“The Dragon Boat Club has been taking care of Riverfront Park, but there’s no reason they should be doing it all themselves. Norristown residents need to get involved to take back the park,” Santangelo said. “It’s just a matter of getting people back down there again. It used to be a very active park when I was young. I would go down there with friends from the west end all the time.”
On Tuesday, Santangelo rallied a small group of volunteers to come out and gather around a corner table at Alfredo’s Restaurant on West Main Street to bat around ideas for fueling up the park’s renaissance.
In the works are nature programs and bird walks to be presented by the John James Audubon Society, and Santangelo would like to bring in a kayak rental service.
Before any of that transpires, it would be nice if the park had a welcome sign, she said.
“There is no sign on the trail to even let you know there is a park there. We’d like to have a sign letting people know you can go down these steps and there’s a park, or if you drive around on Haws Avenue or on your bike from the trail you can get to the park.”
Kimberly Stever of the Schuylkill River Town Program, which strives to “provide a link between communities and the river,” was part of the small group that included Shae Ash of the Norristown Project and Riverfront Park volunteer Carla Kempert.
“I’m so delighted that the residents and Elena are taking on this initiative,” Stever said. “The Schuylkill River program has been working with the residents of Norristown for about the past three years, but it’s really the local residents that make the difference in the program. Our goal is to attract more people to use the river and the Schuylkill River Trail in the hope of building stewardship so people can begin to really take care of it.”
Few have been more instrumental than Parker and Santangelo in bringing people down to the river, Stever allowed.
“And Shae has been great in helping with the cleanups and in making the park a wonderful destination for people.”
It’s Santangelo’s hope that Norristown folks will again realize that there’s no better place than Riverfront Park to bring a blanket and a basket in the summertime.
“There’s places to park and places to have a nice picnic. Some people are a little scared of the park and have a wrong opinion of the park,” she added, “and there’s no reason for that anymore. The Dragon Boat Club really cleaned up all the graffiti and made the park look nice again.”
As more and more kid-friendly activities are offered at the park, Santangelo is confident that families will find their way down to the river this year.
“If summers keep heating up the way they are, you’re going to want to go out looking for a breeze somewhere.”
To find out more about volunteering, e-mail Elena Santangelo at firstname.lastname@example.org.