March 28, 2016
When the lights come on in a basement bathroom at Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center in Strawberry Mansion, roaches skitter along the floor.
Light pours in through cracks in a wall at a West Philadelphia rec center, where walking on the long-neglected tennis courts could be considered dangerous: The pavement swallows your shoes up to the ankle.
GALLERY: A visual tour of some of Philly's rec centers
In Juniata, graffiti mars what's left of the safety matting at a damaged playground in a park where people stop on an overpass and dump mattresses and other trash right into the watershed preserve.
And in a Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood, a young girl with a petition laments the conditions at her local playground and waits, yet another year, for improvements.
"When you see a horror movie, you think of a place like this..." she told PhillyVoice.
The city's Parks and Recreation Department has been underfunded for years – decades, depending on who you ask – and the effects are obvious.
"We aren't talking about having Frank Gehry coming in here. We are talking about some basic renovations." – George Matysik, executive director, Philadelphia Parks Alliance
As recently as 2013, City Controller Alan Butkovitz presented a report on the city's park system, pointing out fire hazards, exposed wires and crumbling exteriors at many city parks.
Former Mayor Michael Nutter earmarked an additional $19 million for the city's park system early in his administration, but the recession whittled that down to a fraction.
That could soon change, however.
New Mayor Jim Kenney's 2017 spending plan calls for a new tax on sugary drinks that would help fund a new plan for community schools, the establishment of pre-K programs and investment in his Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program.
That final initiative calls for nearly $350 million – $300 million from a new bond issue, plus $8 million annually from the city capital budget for six years – to be used to pay for improvements to the city's parks, recreation centers and libraries.
George Matysik, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance – a nonprofit group that advocates for the city's park system – says with additional grants, this $350 million investment could grow into $500 million over the next several years.
And, he said, for an underfunded park system, it's about time.
Calling parks "a neighborhood's first approach to public space," Matysik said that in the past few years, Center City's parks – he pointed to Rittenhouse Square and trendy downtown "pop-up parks" as examples – have been the focus of attention from politicians.
But, outside Center City, Matysik said, neighborhood parks haven't seen investment for far too long.
"Our city has chronically underfunded our parks for years," he said.
As Kenney noted in his budget address, investment at parks like these could help improve education and reduce crime. He told City Council that studies have shown that investment in libraries and parks and rec centers raises school attendance rates and grade-point averages in schools.
After a $5 million investment to improve Hunting Park at North Ninth and West Lycoming streets in North Philadelphia, crime within a half-mile radius of the park dropped 89 percent for the next three years, Kenney has pointed out.
Perhaps those results could be replicated with a little investment.
"We aren't talking about having Frank Gehry coming in here," said Matysik, bringing up the name of a notable architect. "We are talking about some basic renovations."
PhillyVoice spent a recent couple of days visiting a few of the 150 parks and 156 rec centers in the city to assess the level of neglect. Here's what we found:
This rec center, located on the 6.8-acre Reyburn Park at West Lehigh and West Sedgley avenues – across the street from the former site of Connie Mack Stadium – might be a perfect example of how some basic renovations could make a real difference for the community.
On a recent tour, Ronald Lewis, president of the Cecil B. Moore Advisory Council, pointed out water-damaged roofs and walls, ruined fencing, a warped basketball court – responsible for injuries to several players, he said – as well as several bathrooms and a kitchen rendered unusable due to neglect and lack of funding.
"You have to know where you're at when you're playing on this floor or you'll twist an ankle." – Ronald Lewis, president, Cecil B. Moore Advisory Council
A new heating system was installed recently, but Lewis said he couldn't recall the last time the center saw any investment to make repairs to the crumbling structure.
"I'd have to find some of the ancient people," he joked when asked when the rec center last saw improvements. "We haven't gotten anything."
He said that the last time the Moore Rec Center received additional funding was "about 10 to 12" years ago – thanks to Philly-born musician Jill Scott.
Lewis pointed out humps and bubbles in an upstairs basketball court, noting the flaws in the court are so well-known that local kids get "home-field advantage" by using warped areas of the hardwood against players who aren't familiar with the court.
"You have to know where you're at when you're playing on this floor or you'll twist an ankle," he said.
Other problems need to be addressed. Water damage from leaks in the roof caused brown stains to grow on the walls and ceilings throughout the rec center. Grime and dust from chipping paint blanket a kitchen near an upstairs activity room that hasn't been used in over a year.
"It's not usable," he said. "Would you want to prepare a meal in here?"
Near the kitchen, there's a lab with 10 computers – shuttered because there is no Internet access, Lewis said.
Peeling paint could be seen throughout the complex. Lewis said that he's concerned there could be asbestos in the walls and lead leaching from the paint.
But conditions at Cecil B. Moore Rec Center are perhaps the worst in the basement.
An area used regularly by children in martial arts programs is flanked by bathrooms with walls that are chipped and crumbling and toilets shattered into pieces or missing altogether. In one bathroom, roaches scattered along the floor when the lights came on.
"This is what these kids have to deal with," said Lewis.
The ceiling crumbled in a nearby locker room and workout space, where Lewis stepped over a pile of plaster on the floor.
"This place has so much potential," he said. "You know how good this place could look if they actually spent some money here?"
Looking at the state of Cecil B. Moore, Matysik said the rec center is just one example of how the community infrastructure can deteriorate without investment from the city.
"It's just not right. I don't know how else to say it," he said. "These centers are dealing with hundreds of kids and they've got buildings that look like something from the Third World."
Located across about three blocks – a total of 5.3 acres stretching between Westminster Avenue and Funston Street at 51st Street in West Philly – West Mill Creek Park includes a rec center, playground, ballfield, two tennis courts, two basketball courts and a new water spray feature.
An impressive list of recreational amenities, perhaps, but the real story of the park is much different.
According to Keith Coleman, president of the West Mill Creek Advisory Council, the ruined and rutted tennis courts – long missing their nets – haven't been used in two decades.
"When you flush the toilet, it comes up in the grass out here. We are in dire straits here." – Denise Carey, summer camp manager, West Mill Creek Park
"People ask about that every year," Coleman said about the courts. "No one comes out to clean there on the regular."
The courts are full of holes so deep that, upon stepping into them, the pavement swallows your shoes up to your ankles.
K. Walker, who said his family has run a produce stand on the corner across from the tennis courts for 40 years, hasn't seen anyone play sports here in many years.
"It's been at least 15, 20 years since people used those courts," he said. "They hold picnics in there sometimes, though."
Coleman said the park's basketball courts need repairs to a retaining wall and the courts are cracked. The baseball fields, he said, are also full of holes and divots. In fact, about four years ago, a player tripped in a divot and fell, injuring his spine, according to Coleman.
"He can't play ball no more," Coleman said.
Inside the rec center here, Denise Carey, who runs the summer camp and activities at West Mill Creek, said the building almost has too many problems to list. The sink in the kitchen, she said, needs a trap in the drain, something she's been trying to get done for years. Instead, the sink drains into a bucket.
"For five years I've been trying to get a half-inch trap under the sink, five years," she said.
The toilets in the bathrooms, she said, leak into the grass alongside the rec center.
"When you flush the toilet, it comes up in the grass out here," she said. "We are in dire straits here."
In a tour of the rec center, Carey pointed out cracks in the kitchen wall that are so wide, light can be seen pouring in. Leaks in the walls and roof have destroyed workstations that once made up the center's computer lab. Those computers are damaged and in storage. The center doesn't have Internet access anymore.
Both Carey and Coleman said that they feel the park has been abandoned by city officials. To provide programs and equipment for the kids here, they use their own money to get what they need.
"Right now, this place is functioning out of my pocket," Carey said.
Situated on 302 acres at Castor and East Wyoming avenues, this park doesn't boast amenities like a pool or basketball courts, but as a watershed, it serves as an important stretch of woodland in the urban landscape of Philadelphia.
In fact, according to Robin Irizarry, watershed coordinator for the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, the park is home to at least 112 species of birds.
"Growing up, I thought I'd have to go to Alaska to see a bald eagle," he said as he walked the park recently. "But they're right here flying around."
The park hosts ranger programs, as well as nature and bird walks and even a 5K run. But it is besieged by problems – illegal trash dumping and graffiti – and has no bathroom facilities, Irizarry noted.
A restroom facility is important, he said, as a paved trail through the park, added in 2012, has helped to increase use of the park.
A maple syrup festival was held here recently, but Irizarry said they had to partner with nearby businesses so attendees had access to bathrooms.
"That's one thing that comes up a lot," he said. "There's just not any restrooms in this park."
"People just pull up and throw things off the overpass... People know that there's not a lot of people around most of the time, so they think that getting away with something won't be that difficult." – Robin Irizarry, watershed coordinator
While Kenney's initiative would not include the hiring of new personnel, the mayor said in his budget address that fixing up the city's infrastructure would create jobs.
This would be great for Tacony Creek Park, said Irizarry, as the park has problems with vandalism, and having a few extra eyes on the park at nights could be a big help. With the East Wyoming Avenue overpass looming above the park, Irizarry said people often simply pull to the side of that road and dump trash off the overpass directly into the watershed preserve.
Stained mattresses litter the woods near the overpass.
"People just pull up and throw things off the overpass," he said. "This park has a long history of not having a presence... People know that there's not a lot of people around most of the time, so they think that getting away with something won't be that difficult."
This 5.7-acre park and rec center at East Westmoreland and D streets boasts a pool, two basketball courts, a sports field and three ballfields.
But even the park's official Internet page doesn't trumpet its playground.
That could be because it's in pretty sorry shape.
Some local people here – who asked not to be identified – said a new heater system was installed recently, but other than "some touch-up paint," McVeigh hasn't seen any improvements to equipment in at least the past three years.
The roof of the gym is beginning to droop, and there are no bleachers for parents who want to watch their kids play, they said.
And there's the playground, of course.
Graffiti covers everything, from slides to jungle gym structures. And the safety mat has mostly been stolen or destroyed.
What's left is a spotty mat with gaping areas of solid concrete and dirt under the playground equipment. Children would be challenged to play safely here.
At first glance, Max Myers Playground, on 12 acres at Magee and Bustleton avenues in Northeast Philadelphia, might be the best-looking city park we visited. It has facilities for hockey, baseball and tennis, as well as a pool and playground. The rec center is clean and decorated, with a detailed and colorful mural that glistens in the late afternoon sun.
On a recent afternoon, children played basketball and ran around on the fields.
"I like to come here to play with my sister. There's not a lot of parks to play at around here. But all we can do here is sit and talk. That's not fun." – Angela Smith, 12
The playground, however, was empty.
Angela Smith, 12, said the playground is too damaged – and unsafe – to use.
And, it's been that way for at least two years.
"I like to come here to play with my sister. There's not a lot of parks to play at around here," she said. "But all we can do here is sit and talk. That's not fun."
Angela said she started a petition when she was 10 years old in the hopes of spurring investment and repairs to the playground. Safety mats are rutted and ruined, and the playground equipment has been tagged by a number of graffiti "artists."
"This playground is just a big hazard... Everywhere you go, you just see dirt," said Angela, pointing out the ruined safety matting. "When you see a horror movie, you think of a place like this, like it's an abandoned park."
Children consider one of the buildings on the field "creepy," she said.
Ivy Smith, Angela's mother, said she's been told the building used to host a concession stand that served "the best hot dogs in the summertime."
But she's never seen it used.
Angela said her petition has gotten some attention from elected officials, but so far, none of them have a plan to revitalize the playground.
A little investment from the city, Angela said, could restore the playground as a safe place for children to play.
"I'm still trying. I'm not going to give up," she said of her petition. "It doesn't matter if it takes 10 years, I want it to get done."