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Mike Hardy: the man we couldn’t say “no” to

Michael Doan Hardy and his partner (and eventual husband) Barry Grossbach, moved to University City about 50 years ago, when houses in the area cost well under $100,000. They both taught at the Community College of Philadelphia. Being car-free (walked everywhere) and with no prospects of children, they chose to devote their finances, as well as enormous amounts of time, talent and optimism, to making their neighborhood a better place to live.

Mike died July 19, 2021, in hospice, after six months in hospital, never fully recovering from emergency abdominal surgery January 5, that was followed soon after by full-blown covid (which he was exposed to in the hospital, according to Barry), putting him on a ventilator for nearly a month and in medical rehab for months after that.

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Back in the seventies, young Mike’s enthusiasm for history and green spaces found a sprawling target in Clark Park, just a block from their home near 43rd and Baltimore Ave.

On June 14, 1974 an OpEd in the Evening Bulletin, under the headline: “Dickens and Little Nell grow shabby in neglect”, had suggested removing the statue from the “shabby obscurity” of Clark Park and its pigeons.

Park neighbor Bob Brothers responded with an indignant letter to the editor. “I’ve lived here 11 years and never saw a pigeon on the statue,” recalled 88-year-old Brothers recently. Mike read it and looked up Brothers.                                                                                                                     

“Mike was a gentle spark plug,” said Brothers. “We started cleaning up the park and he found other people to help.” According to Brothers, Asian kids played football in the bowl and Black kids played on the basketball court. “Soft drinks were still in glass bottles and kids loved to shatter them.” He remembers Mike, down on his hands and knees, picking up shards of glass under the swings. “I did what he told me to. He asked me to put together press releases and research the park’s history.”

According to Fran Byers, another early park volunteer, Mike invited CCP faculty to do dramatic readings at the first Dickens birthday parties. And thus began, along with many tree plantings, the Friends of Clark Park. Mike was the first president.

Bob Brothers said Mike had a knack for bringing together the different park users and neighbors and working out differences. …but what to do about drugs in the park?

As Barry tells the story, early on Mike learned of a crack house on the adjoining 4500 block of Kingsessing. So the couple bought and rehabbed it. When a Dutch family, fresh from spending five years working revitalizing poor neighborhoods in Nairobi, wanted to buy the house in 1977, but couldn’t get a mortgage because of redlining (It was an all-Black area then), Mike and Barry lowered the price on the condition that Marja and Jan Hoek organize the block within six months. And they did.  

“Our next door neighbor helped us set up a meeting with everyone,” said Marja recently. Together they cleaned up trash and tires from the block, and, over the years, had Christmas parties and met to solve problems. She learned that people on the block had kept to themselves up until then, nervous about drugs. (Drugs remained an issue in the park, but it was a start.) Eventually, on Mike’s request, Jan served as president of the Friends of Clark Park. “He taught me how to plant a tree,” recalls Jan now and “he attracted crowds of people for park cleanups.”

The Hoeks had been unaware of the racial tension in this country, and had two young children who had grown up in Africa, so were color blind. Mike asked his ally on the block, Monte Lumpkin, to look after them. Jan remembers Monte as “the guardian of Clark Park.” Through Monte, Mike and Barry reached out to the young basketball players, finding out what they needed and buying donuts for them. Years later, when Move bought a house on the block, the Kingsessing group was able to build a relationship with them.

 In the mid 1970s, Mike also became very active in the University City Historical Society. “He was a force…” according to Joanne Kellerman. “I can still hear his voice, calling and asking me to do something.” She said she wanted to help out because he was doing so much himself. She had joined UCHS after moving to the area in 1974. A few years later, “He talked me into being president for two years, and later I was treasurer for 20 years.” (see UCHS inset for more details) “People had to pick up the pieces when he got sick, ten years ago,” said Kellerman.  

Beginning in 2011, Mike was in and out of the hospital with debilitating seizures. He eventually recovered enough to move home. I remember talking with Mike on the 34 trolley a few years ago. He was on his way to the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society. But he mostly enjoyed reading books on history and working out on his treadmill, according to Barry.

Mike’s association with PHS began many years earlier when he joined their Tree Tenders program. He helped organize street-tree plantings in West Philadelphia through PHS and UCGreen, where he was a member of the original board of directors. As part of Baltimore Avenue in Bloom, Mike also planted trees with volunteers at the trolley portal, along the trolley tunnels, and at the traffic island at 45th and Baltimore. Barry learned to accept that vacation plans were secondary to newly planted trees during summer dry spells. “He had hoses on rolling carts and a wrench to open fire hydrants to water the islands,” said Barry.

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In 1976, Mike’s passion for history, community and trees found a perfect home, when he forged a relationship between The Woodlands Cemetery (whose “residents” date back to the early 1800’s) and the University City Historical Society. Eventually, he retired from teaching history at the Community College to be the part-time executive director of the Woodlands; William Hamilton’s mansion became the UCHS headquarters. Mike oversaw the Woodlands forest, researched the history of William Hamilton (an 18th century collector of specimen trees from all over the world), his mansion and the histories of people buried there; and raised funds for restoration of the long neglected building and also held community events there, as well as scheduling burials. He and Barry celebrated their marriage there.

“Mike put the Woodlands on the map,” said Barry. Indeed, Mike had it put on the National Historic Register. Lauren Leatherbarrow (Spruce Hill Garden Club) described how Mike contacted a chain of 30 area house museums in the area. Together they successfully applied for a Pew grant that encouraged collaboration, and created a booklet of local house museums, thus positioning the Woodlands with other well-known places. (for more on Mike at the Woodlands see UCHS inset)  

Twenty years later, in 1997, the board of directors of the cemetery company which owned the Woodlands ultimately did say “no” to Mike and he and UCHS were asked to leave. The UCHS website (uchs.net) has an archive of newsletters where you can read Mike’s own words about how the relationship ended. But he continued to volunteer in the neighborhood with UCHS, Baltimore Avenue in Bloom, UCGreen, etc.

 “Mike cooked up collaborations. It was his huge strength,” said Lauren Leatherbarrow who brainstormed with Mike about Baltimore Avenue in Bloom, UCGreen and the Woodlands (the garden club and the Hosta Society did plantings there). She said he drew on Barry’s contacts at Spruce Hill, UCD, and the universities as well as PHS, politicians, Pew Charitable Trust, etc.  

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“You’d be tossing around ideas with him and he’d get a twinkle in his eye, then an impish smile,” and come up with a chain of connections and collaborations to get everything done.

“His other huge strength was that he could talk people like me into doing things,” she laughed, adding, “I always liked Mike’s company.” 

Epilogue:                                                            

The Woodlands eventually hired another executive director, Jessica Beaumert. She has met Mike and Barry and gratefully acknowledges that: “Our successes now are built on things that Mike started in the 1990’s. For example, his Tend-A-Grave program morphed into the Grave Gardeners. And so much of the information that I have on the Woodlands is from the primary source research that Mike did. He formed the groundwork for what we do now.”

After Mike’s obituary was published, people have been asking her where the grave stone is that Mike and Barry had installed last year. She has drawn up a map.

A Celebration of Mike’s Life in the Community

When: Tuesday, September 21st

Where: Bartram’s  Garden

Under the Pavilion

5:30-7:30 p.m.

Lots to see, eat and drink and celebrate!

 

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