Emaleigh and Aine Doley grew up on West Rockland Street, a one-block street in Germantown where they still live together in their childhood home, surrounded by 46 other houses that are owned, rented and subsidized. The block has seen better days: After 2009, it has been plagued by litter, broken sidewalks, abandoned houses and trash-strewn vacant lots.
The Doleys didn’t want to live like that. So they decided to do something about it. With self-described “do-it-yourself spirit and low-cost high-impact approach,” the Doley sisters organized their neighbors, and have started to rebuild their small block into the haven they remembered from their youth.
Emaleigh is an independent communications consultant, and a producer with annual TEDxPhiladelphia conference. She has worked at DesignPhiladelphia and Next City, and serves on the boards of City Planning Commission’s Citizens Planning Institute and Design Advocacy Group. So she understands, perhaps more than most, who to call and how to get things done in the city. But to the Doleys, bettering a neigborhood doesn’t require special skills—just desire. “Anyone can be an active citizen or neighborhood advocate,” Emaleigh says.
Knowing where to start was the hardest part. At first, they stuck to small things: Meeting with neighbors to get ideas, picking up trash, doing small planters. Soon, they became more ambitious.
In June 2011, they garnered press from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which ran a story about their efforts on Rockland St. The story caught the attention of Mayor Nutter, who stopped by their block one morning to speak with them and see what could be done. Within two weeks, the two houses that sat vacant for 20 years were demolished. Mayor Nutter told the Inquirer, “When neighbors are trying to make something happen, we, the city, have to meet them halfway.”
The two houses and a vacant lot that sat adjacent have since become a fenced-in green space where community members gather. Emaleigh said they’re in the early stages of a Mural Arts collaboration to further beautify the space.
A year later, the Doleys and their neighbors transformed another vacant lot into a community garden, with a colorful, inviting entrance, 13 raised planting beds, a melon and climbing vine patch, a compost bin, a floral garden and jungle gym for kids. The vacant lot remains city owned, but the neighbors took responsibility for transforming the eyesore. That year, The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society awarded the garden 2nd Place in the Community Garden Combination category of the annual City Gardens Contest. In the same City Gardens Contest, W. Rockland St. was awarded 3rd Place in the Greenest Block in Town. Approximately 30 houses have front yard gardens and large sidewalk planters, the increase in which Doley attributes to the block’s participation in the annual Grow This Block! now in its fourth year.
These efforts to green the block have reduced litter by as much as 50 percent, Emaleigh said. And, “aside from it being more attractive, we’ve used greening as a community building tool getting people to work together who might not otherwise,” she said.
From the start, the Doleys documented their work on a blog, RocklandStreet.com, to demonstrate that anyone can do what they wanted for Rockland Street. Over the years, they have blogged their pleas for better quality of life, the success of their DIY efforts and relevant community news on rocklandstreet.com. “We’ve used it as an online diary,” Emaleigh says.
Since 2011, Emaleigh and Aine have blogged in earnest, churning out a steadier stream of content which has evolved from block-specific news to include a section on “Changing Germantown.” The blog serves as both a roadmap for those interested in turning around their block and a case study in how development changes a neighborhood.
The addition of the Changing Germantown section to the website was a natural progression. “We’re still busy focusing on our block but in the last to years, there has been a noticeable uptick in development and interest in Germantown without a place to find a steady stream of news,” Emaleigh said.
They have advocated for the planting of “pop-up gardens,” to deal with the unsightly nature of the W. Rockland. St. sidewalks. Emaleigh has urged blog readers to attend the City Planning Commission’s meetings. Emaleigh reported on a Harvard University panel discussion about the built environment in Philadelphia. She wrote about building a garden on their block during the Philly Spring Cleanup. Emaleigh explored the block’s future under the Actual Value Initiative.
The Doley sisters have also become regular sources for the local and national media on urban living and intervention. Aine Doley has demonstrated the city’s fire hydrant sprinkler cap on CNN, and Emaleigh has appeared on CBS-3’s Talk Philly alongside the Streets Department’s then-Commissioner to talk about the city’s UnLitter Us campaign.
Emaleigh thinks city agencies tap her and Aine for media appearances and reporters ask them for story tips because they’re so active online with Rocklandst.com, Twitter and Instagram. “We’re really, really accessible. That’s one of the reasons we just naturally get calls,” Emaleigh says.
Recently, Emaleigh has led the charge in fighting the secrecy surrounding Ken Weinstein’s development of a property in Northwest Philadelphia where Women Against Abuse would set up a 100-bed shelter for battered women. A substantial mixed use development spanning an entire city block such as this should have been subject to community hearings, Emaleigh says.
She wrote two letters to the city asking questions about the development, but got no answers. “It’s extremely unusual,” she says. “I still want to know: How did the developer secure this project, bypassing all public disclosure, bypassing the city zoning board because one part of the project is deemed private?”
Doley is an independent communications consultant with journalism, public relations and marketing experience. She’s a producer with annual TEDxPhiladelphia conference which brings engaging speakers and “ideas worth spreading” to an audience of more than 1,200 people. She’s been involved in planning the local conference since 2011, and took over as co-producer in 2014. The next TEDxPhiladelphia is scheduled for June 11, 2015. “I wanted to bring this to Philadelphia is because the city inspires me and TEDx and the TED platform are a way to present interesting stories and ideas we can all learn from,” Emaleigh said.