Cleaning Cobbs Creek Park
Richard Guffanti, a retired Philadelphia School District science teacher, has been hard at work keeping his community's greenspace clean
“My wife tells me I failed at retirement,” said Richard Guffanti with a smile. Rich “retired” back in 2011, after teaching science for 24 years to high school students all over Philadelphia — Germantown, University City, Northeast Philly (Fels High), and North Central Philly (Girls High). It didn’t take long for him to get restless. “I hate feeling useless,” he said, “I guess work is just in my DNA.”
A volunteer with the Spruce Hill Community Association since 2004, Rich got involved with their bird sanctuary project in University City the year after he retired. The sanctuary — bounded by Spruce, Locust, 45th, and Melville — was founded by Anne Froehling in 2011 and, over the last decade, has become a hidden gem beloved by its community. Or, at least, it’s beloved by those who know it exists, but it’s so well hidden that a close friend of mine has unwittingly lived less than a block away from it for almost two years now. If you know where to look, though, you’re in for a treat — thanks in part to Rich’s volunteer labor:
As the years went on, Rich became more and more active in his community. He began volunteering at a local library, and, through it, he connected with Andrew Wheeler, a resident of the area with an affinity for outdoor activities and a passion for public service. Rich and Andrew got to talking about how they could improve their community, and they decided they’d start by cleaning up the Cobbs Creek Park leaves that accumulated along 63rd Street near the Environmental Center.
According to Rich, the city’s existing leaf removal services fall a bit short: crews don’t come around often, and when leaf piles get rained on, they’re more resistant to the city’s machinery. So, he and Andrew started filling in the gaps in the city’s service. In December of 2017, after spending countless hours clearing leaves off of streets near Cobbs Creek, they turned their attention to trash. By year’s end, they’d completed two cleanups. Little did they know, they were on the verge of something much bigger than a two-man operation.
By March of 2019, after community members started recognizing them and noticing the work they were doing, Rich and Andrew got their first volunteer. They haven’t looked back since. Rich is now one of the lead organizers of a hodgepodge group of locals who like to pick litter in their free time. The group, which has a Facebook page called Cobbs Creek Park Cleanups, is led mainly by Rich, Andrew, Temwa Wright (Executive Director of Pamoza International), and Lawrence Szmulowicz (Staff Attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance).
They’ve unofficially adopted roughly half of Cobbs Creek Park, split it into nine zones, and assigned each zone an ambassador. Rich “provides the organizational structure” of the group while Temwa and Andrew run monthly Zoom meetings attended by all ambassadors. At the meetings, they hash out plans for their regularly scheduled zone cleanups — some weekly, some monthly. Rich’s zone, for example, stretches along Cobbs Creek Parkway between Whitby and Florence, and he runs a cleanup on the first Saturday of every month. Temwa, on the other hand, runs weekly cleanups (from March through November) near the parkway’s intersection with Catharine Street.
The group has grown mostly by word of mouth, in spite of Rich’s efforts to recruit members elsewise. Recruitment via Facebook and email has been largely futile: in 2020, for example, Rich had 214 people on his email list, and he organized 39 cleanups. Of those 214 people, 78% never showed up, 16% came once or twice, and only 6% — just over a dozen people — came more than twice.
Rich has even tried canvassing in the neighborhoods near the park. His strategy is roughly as follows: create a spreadsheet for a given plot of residential land, enter each house number into a row, and then go knock on doors. Put a plus-sign next to any house number that shares contact information with him, a minus-sign next to any house number that declines to do so, and leave a blank space for unanswered knocks. Then, return to house numbers with blank spaces up to three times. After canvassing like this all over the communities surrounding Cobbs Creek Park, Rich has recruited only two additional long-term volunteers.
And yet, in spite of the low rate of return on Rich’s recruitment efforts, the long-term results of his labor are undeniable. Sure, the results are visible to the naked eye — walking around the park, one can easily tell which sections have been adopted by the group and which have not — but Rich has also kept data almost religiously. “I’m pretty obsessive about notes and statistics,” he said. In 2021, the group led 135 cleanups and removed around 6 tons of trash. They’re on pace to remove nearly 8 tons of trash in 2022.
You can trust that the tonnage estimates are accurate: far from just eyeballing it, Rich used a luggage scale to weigh 55 bags of trash back in 2020. Then, he calculated the average weight for a full 33-gallon bag, which is 14 pounds (stat buffs, don’t worry, Rich has you covered — the standard deviation is 2%). Now, he and his fellow ambassadors count bags for every cleanup, multiply the bag count by 14, and keep track of how many pounds of garbage they haul out of the park each week.
Other than $2,000 per year from the Clean Air Council, Rich and company are operating on no budget at all, and he wants to keep it that way. “I want people who have their heart in it,” he said. But they haven’t been going it completely alone — they’ve benefitted from informal partnerships with several organizations:
Philadelphia Parks and Recreation gives the group litter pickers and hauls away the trash bags that they fill up
Darby Creek Valley Association partners with the group for cleanups 3-4 times a year
United by Blue partners with the group for an annual cleanup
Rich said that they also occasionally work with troops of Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. He tried to get a local public school to adopt a section of the trail, but has had little luck. A new charter school is set to be built along the parkway, and they’ve made passing comments about helping with cleanups, but Rich is skeptical. Nonetheless, with very little funding, a few dozen committed volunteers, and what little equipment they’ve been able to scrounge together, the group is making serious headway in the fight against litter in Cobbs Creek Park.
When asked whether he felt overwhelmed by the volume of trash, Rich replied, simply, “I think we match the problem” — at least, in the 50% of the park that the group has adopted. He estimates that if they could double their efforts, they could keep all of Cobbs Creek Park — that is, the areas immediately bordering the park’s recreational trails — more or less litter-free. As for the creek itself and the floodplains surrounding it, Rich said they’ve been neglected for many years, and the group simply lacks the manpower to tackle them.
Surprisingly, Rich reports that the group doesn’t often encounter illegal dumpsites in the park. They collected only 56 tires in all of 2021 and have collected 58 so far in 2022, most of which came from a single dumpsite that they discovered on MLK Day. They sometimes encounter old piles of concrete, wood pallets, or other construction-related wood products, but not very often. Rich himself is partly responsible for the absence of illegal dumpsites in the park: he’s pestered the city into installing gates and boulders to block park entrances, making the interior of the park difficult for would-be dumpers to access.
There’s one spot, though, just upstream and across the creek from historic Blue Bell Inn on Woodland Ave, where illegal dumping is rampant. Glancing quickly while walking by, one can count at least four couches, clearly dumped over the edge where a residential street comes up against a ravine that plunges down into the Cobbs Creek. Rich was quick to point out that the creek serves as Philadelphia County’s border here, meaning that dumpsite was technically in Delaware County, even though the eyesore is only visible from the Philadelphia side.
A short walk up the recreational path from the dumpsite is a small wooden bench — “Andrew’s bench,” Rich calls it, as in Andrew Wheeler, co-leader of the group and Zone 9 ambassador. Andrew installed the bench so that he could sit by the creek and relax. To keep it from being stolen, he chained it to two cinder blocks.
One day, Rich walked by and the bench wasn’t there. Someone had come by and thrown it into the creek along with the cinder blocks. He and Andrew fished it out and chained it to a tree, where it was still sitting safe and sound on Monday morning. It may be Andrew’s bench, but it’s easy to tell that other people use it too. Scattered on the grass surrounding the bench were cigar wrappers, grocery bags, disposable masks.
The work can be thankless, but even at age 76, Rich fights litter as relentlessly as it accumulates. His email signature reads:
The optimist knows how bad things are.
The pessimist learns how bad things are every day anew.
Pessimism is a luxury we cannot afford.
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