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Joyce Smith

I turned an alley into a neighborhood connector and gathering space.


December 3, 2017


East Parkside


Fall 2010 Pilot Program

Joyce Smith has been an ambassador for her historic neighborhood of East Parkside since 2009.

As a member and co-founder of the Viola Street Residents Association (VSRA), she witnessed the sequence of abandonment, vacancy, and then demolition because some East Parkside homeowners could not afford repairs.

Joyce knew she needed to be proactive in learning what resources are available to help her neighborhood. So she decided to enroll in the first ever Citizens Planning Institute in 2010!

She found exactly what she was looking for. Joyce considers CPI a golden opportunity.

I had no idea how useful the CPI material would continue to be. I still reference the powerpoint handouts and share the “Learn to Plan- Plan to Change” CPI handbook. I am making real connections through the CPI presentations as we chart our path to realize our goal.

Vacant Property

To tackle the issue of vacant lots, Joyce and VSRA reached out to Regional Housing Legal Services (RHLS) about legal tools, such as Conservatorship, that they could use to fight vacancy.

VSRA also walked the neighborhood to take inventory of vacant properties, and Joyce used the City’s website to research property information, deeds and tax balances—a skill she learned from CPI.

Later, Joyce and VSRA took the ambitious step of submitting a proposal for free design services from the Community Design Collaborative to do a neighborhood plan, focused on reclaiming vacant properties.

They were awarded the design services! VSRA used the resulting plan, “Project Reclaim,” to work with Licenses & Inspections to issue code violations, leading to some absentee owners making repairs.

Four people stand in front of a boarded up building.

Joyce and her neighbors inventorying vacant properties in their neighborhood

Affordable Home Repairs

However, homeowners living on the block were still struggling to afford repairs to their historic properties.

RHLS connected Joyce with the home repair program at Philadelphia’s local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat was seeking a well-organized neighborhood with a concentrated need for repairs. In East Parkside they found just that. VSRA did the neighbor-to-neighbor outreach and assisted residents with the necessary paperwork, and Habitat volunteers did the repairs.

Read more about how Joyce reached her neighbors and worked through issues like trust and tangled titles in her Citizens Toolkit story!

As a result of Joyce’s efforts, Habitat volunteers repaired 15 homes during the summer of 2014. Smaller projects were free and larger repairs were offered at steeply discounted rates and a payment plan with no interest or liens.

Working with Politicians

CPI has also helped Joyce recognize the importance of creating new relationships with other community activists, politicians, and community development organizations across the city. She describes how they arranged an introductory meeting with their Councilperson:

At this meeting, we discussed “Project Reclaim” and asked for support and assistance in the implementation of this plan. We also submitted a “PR” package that included information about our mission, what we’ve accomplished, and our current projects.

Their goal was to open up communication and establish dialogue with their councilperson; a goal which Joyce feels they have achieved and will continue to build upon and strengthen going forward.


Joyce understood the importance of zoning before taking CPI but needed guidance so VSRA could play a role in development happening in their community.

Joyce was able to use information from classes even before completing CPI. She recalls:

VSRA had its first zoning experience while CPI 2010 was still in session. I referenced the course materials and applied techniques taught in CPI to help prepare VSRA’s testimony.

With the help of Andrew Maloney, under VSRA a re-mapping for a section of Parkside was completed in 2014, and Centennial Parkside completed remapping for the remaining portion of Parkside in 2017.

Tree Planting & Community Garden

Beyond the above mentioned accomplishments, Joyce and VSRA also convinced the UC Green tree planting group to expand their boundaries to include East Parkside.

People stand around a chainlink fence with a garden sign on it.

Residents from Strawberry Mansion visit the beautiful Viola Street Garden

They are working with their Councilperson to induct the Viola Street Community Garden into the Neighborhood Gardens Trust.


Joyce’s passion and commitment to community development go beyond helping those on Viola Street. Joyce knew she had tools and knowledge that could positively impact her fellow Parkside neighbors, so she joined the 10-member board of the Centennial Parkside CDC.

Joyce is currently the Vice President and serves on the Board’s zoning committee and as Chair of the Community Development Committee.

The new CDC has moved its headquarters to the historic Letitia House, which is located across Girard Avenue from the Philadelphia Zoo in Fairmont Park.

With two positions in two different community organizations, Joyce has double the amount of work, but she also has a unique opportunity. She can, and has, served as an ambassador which both organizations can use to collaborate on community projects.

Viola Alley Project

Such was the case with the Viola Alley Connector project, which converted an underused alley into a community space that links Viola Street to West Fairmont Park. Joyce describes:

Using my Citizen Planner know-how, I envisioned how this alleyway, connecting two historical blocks, could be transformed into a vital space for residents.

The project, called the Viola Alley Connector, was funded by the Knight Foundation for their Reimagining the Civic Commons program.

With the support of Centennial Parkside CDC, who spearheaded the project, and several other organizations, the Viola Alley Connector was completed last September.

A group of people pose for a photo.

Several members of the Centennial Parkside CDC that Citizen Planners, Joyce Smith (center) and Lorraine Gomez (2nd from left, back row) helped start.

A black and white picture of a historic house.

Historic Leitia House in Fairmount Park, future site of the Centennial Parkside CDC

The kick-off event included an appearance by Citizen Planner Philip Green’s PhillyTeePee!

The Connector has since become an integral place for gathering, sharing food, watching movies, and connecting the community, both literally and figuratively.

Recently, Centennial Parkside CDC, in collaboration with the Reading Terminal Market, the Knight Foundation, and Penn Praxis, hosted the Parkside Fresh Food Fest, a 6-event series. Fresh Food Fest aimed to build community, use the new alley space and provide fresh food access to their neighbors.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Joyce was also a participant in CPI’s Neighbors Helping Neighbors workshops in Fall 2015. CPI brought together 15 longtime neighborhood leaders to ask them: What challenges are you facing in your neighborhoods, and what do you do to address them?

The tools and stories that were shared at the workshops became the content of the Citizens Toolkit, a resource for anyone in Philadelphia looking to improve their block or neighborhood. Joyce was an invaluable contributor!

After the Toolkit was published, CPI decided to take it on the road to foster more crosspollination between neighborhood activists across the City. In June 2017, Joyce and fellow Toolkit contributor and Citizen Planner Tonnetta Graham were chosen to participate in CPI’s pilot Neighborhood Exchange.

The Exchange brought together two neighboring communities- East Parkside and Strawberry Mansion- for a day of camaraderie, food, reflection, and collaboration.

While both neighborhoods had aging historic homes and residents struggling to afford home repairs, they had taken different approaches to address them.

With help of leaders from Centennial Parkside CDC, Strawberry Mansion CDC, CPI staff, and volunteers, residents from both locations were able to tour each other’s neighborhoods and share how they tackled challenges.

Joyce co-led and helped organize the walking tour in East Parkside. She has been in contact with Tonnetta about collaborating as a result of working together on the Exchange. One project they’re considering is working together to make improvements to the Girard Avenue bridge.

An Award-Winning Citizen Planner

In April 2015 the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC) recognized Joyce with its community leader award. Joyce was selected because of her innovation, impact, leadership and advancement of equity – go Joyce!