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July 28, 2023

Canoes, fishing gear used by youth programs vandalized at FDR Park, friends group says

The Friends of FDR Park blames the destruction on people drinking in the park at night

Investigations Vandalism
FDR Park Vandalism Provided Image/Adam Forbes

At FDR Park, gear used for youth programs was recently damaged by people drinking at the popular South Philly recreation spot, the park's friends group says. The Friends of FDR Park describe that multiple canoes were destroyed, fishing equipment was stolen and the boathouse near Edgewood Lake was vandalized.

Canoes and fishing gear used for youth programs at FDR Park were recently damaged, as was other property, by nighttime drinkers at the popular South Philly recreation spot.

In an Instagram post on Monday, the Friends of FDR Park said multiple canoes were destroyed, fishing equipment was broken or stolen, and the boathouse near Edgewood Lake was vandalized. Philadelphia police said they are investigating an incident that occurred there sometime between the evening of July 17 and the morning of July 18. 

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"Intentionally damaging the shared spaces we all enjoy goes far beyond late night drinking in the park,'" the Friends of FDR Park said. "This is antisocial behavior. It harms our community and directly impacts the hundreds of young people enrolled in our boating and fishing programs." 

Problems with underage drinking and destructive behavior have gone on for years at FDR Park, said Adam Forbes, director of the South Philly nonprofit Discovery Pathways. Forbes runs fishing and boating programs that train teens to be kayak instructors and watershed leaders for community events at Edgewood Lake. 

"The drinking has been a constant problem that Parks & Recreation has tried, minimally, to address over the years," Forbes said. "It's been more serious and frequent this summer. This year is the first time it's involving break-ins to locked buildings and more serious vandalism, theft and destruction."

Before joining Discovery Pathways, Forbes was an employee of the city's Parks & Recreation department. There were sporadic attempts to prevent underage drinking at the lake around that time, mostly on weekends, but the city's intervention was limited as long as there was no vandalism

"We tried to make peace with (the teens)," Forbes said. "A few years ago, the Philadelphia Flower Show was at the park, so after that, there was a bunch of nice furniture and nice setups that got installed. A lot of that was burned or thrown into the lake. It kind of comes and goes in waves. A lot of the time, it's tons of smashed bottles and flipped tables. Lots of trash to clean up. There have been various waves of this, but they had never entered the building before."

A Parks & Recreation spokesperson said Monday the city is "deeply disappointed" in the recent vandalism at FDR Park. More police and park rangers will now patrol the park after hours. FDR Park's hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., but the park remains accessible after it closes. 

"Unfortunately, this issue is not unique to any one Philadelphia park, and is a challenge for parks and rec departments across the state and country," said Parks & Rec spokesperson Maita Soukup. "At FDR Park, the approach to preventing overnight vandalism includes security cameras, after-hours park ranger and police patrols, and secure gates at vehicle access points. Parks & Rec is cooperating fully with police in their investigation of recent vandalism."

FDR Park, known as The Lakes by many South Philly residents, is used by various youth sports leagues. There are soccer and baseball fields at the south end of the park. The Phillies Urban Youth Academy and RBI Programs play at the Richie Ashburn Fields, and FDR's seven manmade lakes are used for fishing, canoeing and kayaking.

The city is eager to make upgrades at FDR Park in advance of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which includes Philadelphia as a host city. There has been discussion of using new soccer fields planned at FDR Park as practice pitches during the World Cup, a plan that has angered many South Philly residents. Many do not want to see FDR Park's popular "wild meadow," a former golf course that became overgrown, be torn up

Soukup said the plan to build fields in that area will move forward and is currently in the design phase, but no final decision has been made by FIFA about whether the fields will be used for World Cup practices

The $250 million FDR Park Plan — the broad effort to revitalize FDR — includes a blueprint to expand recreational activities at the 348-acre site, including a dozen multipurpose sports fields, 10 miles of trails and stormwater management updates to reduce frequent flooding. And the new Anna C. Verna Playground, which will have the largest swingset in North America, is expected to open next month.

But the vandalism and drinking at Edgewood Lake are reminders that sprucing up the park may not be enough to solve its problems. 

Forbes said the issues really ramped up in July. He recalled multiple nights that there were teen gatherings, vandalism and break-ins at the boathouse, both before and after a formal police report was made on July 18. The first incident was on July 8, Forbes said. A lock to the boathouse apparently hadn't been fully secured and was pried open.

"Someone had broken in and taken a bunch of our kayaks out. It's the same, obvious teen crew. They leave their Twisted Tea cans and bottles everywhere, and their trash," Forbes said. "That first time, they took out all of our boats and broke a bunch of paddles. I got all but one kayak back."

Inside the boathouse, Forbes found shelves overturned. Gear used for the teen summer program and porta potties were thrown in the lake. Local police were notified about that incident, Forbes said.

The morning after the second incident — the one reported to police on July 18 — Forbes was at the beach when he got a call that many of the program's boats were out on the lake. When he got to the lake, he found a different door to the boathouse bashed in with bricks and rocks. Fishing gear, small supplies, a generator and other equipment used by the program were missing. That's when the police report was filed. 

Forbes took inventory of his supplies. One kayak was missing and a canoe was completely smashed. Other boats had straps cut or holes left in them. Some had marine paint from the shed poured all over them, and paint also was dumped upstairs in the boathouse, Forbes said. Some of the paint was even dumped in the lake, creating a safety hazard. 

"A lot of the stuff, they don't steal. It just gets thrown in the lake and we can't recover it all," Forbes said. 

Then on July 19, Forbes said a rowdy group of young people came to the park around 6 p.m. during a community fishing event. 

"Usually (they show up) much later, but they were throwing bottles over the families fishing and yelling a bunch of racial slurs," Forbes said. "There was a big confrontation that night, and mostly all of the families ended up leaving because they were scared."

Forbes admitted the pattern of teens showing up this month is wearing on him, since he is often called to the park to deal with it. 

"I've been a part of going out there a bunch of nights, intervening, and it's always just been rowdy drunk kids. Mostly all of the kids walk in from the neighborhood there, and they feel like this is their park and they've been drinking down the lake 'since before I was born,' blah blah blah. They feel a bunch of ownership that this is their space to drink and party."

Discovery Pathways has about 50 kayaks, but 20 of them are now damaged and unusable for community programs. There's only one working canoe left and three rowboats, which are popular for families at community events that often draw several hundred people. 

"We did have to cancel some school groups that were visiting that week (of July 17)," Forbes said. "Everything was trashed. Our fishing night the next week, a lot of people had to wait longer because we didn't have as much gear."

Forbes said he got another call about a large lake gathering this week, and when he arrived, there were a few park rangers there. It was the first time he had seen them come to the lake. 

"I talked to them, but they didn't seem to think it was a regular thing," Forbes said. 

Most of the teens who come to the park at night walk in, Forbes said, but there is a gate to FDR Park that's left open every night to cars. Forbes said he's sometimes observed cars driving in to unload beer. Sometimes when parties get broken up, Ubers come through the gate to pick up the young people still there. 

Forbes said park rangers are reluctant to shut the gate because FDR Park is often used for parking during sporting events at the stadiums nearby. There's official parking for Eagles games, but people attending Phillies games also park there. The rangers told Forbes they're concerned that if they lock the gates, cars would be stuck and people would drive over the lawns to leave.

"The sentiment when I spoke to the park rangers didn't seem like they had necessarily figured out a solution," Forbes said. "I know there are very few rangers citywide. I would like to believe it will get better, but I don't know." 

The boathouse has become less accessible to the fishing and boating program since the side door was vandalized. The doors to the boathouse are old, heavy and made of steel. The city doesn't have replacements, so the entrance that was broken into this month is now boarded up.

"A lot of this is just really devastating and upsetting for our teens, because they work really hard to set up the boathouse and the programs. To come in morning after morning and see everything trashed, and have to spend four hours some days cleaning up, it's really tough for our program."

Forbes isn't sure about the future of his programs at FDR Park. Discovery Pathways is accepting donations to help replace some of its damaged and stolen supplies.

"We've said to park leaders, if this continues, we just can't continue to operate programs out of there. We're really committed to FDR and the community. All of our programs grew out of community needs and desires," he said. "To think about having to shut things down is really tough, but if it goes on week after week of this, we just can't continue like this."