Philadelphia’s Placing a $500 Million Bet on Play

As the city plans a major investment in rec centers, parks and libraries, two neighborhoods offer a road map to getting this overhaul right.

Story by Jen Kinney

Photography by Jen Kinney

Published on

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Even as Lawncrest, the Philadelphia neighborhood, has transformed over the past half century, Lawncrest the city rec center has — for better and for worse — remained largely the same.

A mash-up of two adjacent neighborhoods, Lawndale and Crescentville, Lawncrest is sandwiched between the neglected urban expanse of North Philadelphia and the near-suburban neatness of the city’s far northeast. Best known for hosting one of the city’s longest-running July Fourth celebrations, the neighborhood also gained a reputation for violence after a string of murders in 2014. Incomes have declined; poverty is rising. Nail salons, day care centers and delis plod redundantly down the Rising Sun Avenue commercial corridor, while the neighborhood lacks for a convenient grocery store. An aging library sits at one end of the strip, next to the rec center and a dusty double-wide trailer that serves as an outpost of the DA’s office.

But besides the pool (installed in the 1960s), and the playground (replaced two decades ago, now dilapidated), and the community garden (just a few years old), the Lawncrest Recreation Center is almost exactly the same today as it was when it was built in the 1940s. It’s still at the heart of the neighborhood, still much beloved, even as neighbors use the same old rec infrastructure in new ways. Baseball has waned in popularity, so the center’s four diamonds don’t get the use they once did, but the impromptu football field carved out from their intersecting outfields bustles with leagues for every age. Hockey is rarely played in the walled-in outdoor rink anymore, but teams largely composed of Latin American immigrants play weekend soccer tournaments there. Teens cluster, too, in the shade of the library, smoking illicit cigarettes and charging their phones at an outdoor outlet.

Maintenance, though, hasn’t kept pace with need. The gym roof leaks, sometimes so badly games have to be canceled midway through. The wall around the pool is crumbling. All but two of the swings are missing; playground equipment lies snapped and unusable on the ground. The center is dark, crowded, hot and not ADA-friendly. On a busy Saturday, cheerleading practice and dance class fill the multipurpose rooms; zumba has been relegated to a hallway. Where there are no picnic tables, neighbors grill and picnic on a weedy lawn, paying no mind to drifts of litter collecting by tree trunks.

Less than 2 miles away, the rec center at Sturgis Playground gleams like new. Also located in the 9th District, in a neighborhood similarly posed in a holding pattern between gentrification and decline, Sturgis’ rec center was rebuilt from the ground up in 2013, after nearly a decade of fierce advocacy by neighbors Jeff Hackett and Frances McDonald. Once so underused the city threatened to close it, the center today is a thriving town square for the neighborhood of modest single-family homes that surround it, especially popular with parents and children in the evening hours after work and school. Hackett and McDonald credit the rebuild for the transformation, and something else: their own watchful presence, their enforcement of a moral code. “We walked the playground, we stopped the profanity, we stopped the smoking ourselves, we didn’t wait for anybody to do that,” says Hackett.

Gallery: Philadelphia’s Sturgis Rec Center

Whereas public-private partnerships and private friends groups have made dazzling examples of Philadelphia’s Center City public spaces, in the outlying neighborhoods, this is what has kept rec centers running: neighbors and residents, paying up, with their time and money, despite facing Sisyphean levels of need. Voluntary associations known as advisory councils raise funds for programming, and increasingly for basics like air conditioning and new floors. As a result, rec centers experience vast disparities. Wealthier neighborhoods can more easily raise money from residents. Rec centers with politically savvy advisory councils might agitate effectively for renovations, as Sturgis did. Unorganized rec centers in lower-income neighborhoods go without.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild initiative aims to level that playing field, with the city planning to invest $500 million in up to about half of Philadelphia’s 406 parks, libraries and rec centers over the next seven years. Guided by the belief that investment in shared civic spaces is good for the economy and improves children’s life outcomes, Rebuild sites will be chosen in part based on factors like a neighborhood’s poverty, health data, drug offense rates and the potential for economic growth.

With the first round of Rebuild sites to be announced by the end of the year, Next City partnered with urban designers at Gehl to survey users at both Sturgis and Lawncrest — a rec center that has already received transformative investment, and one that might. (The William Penn Foundation provided grant funding for the reporting and research and is also a supporter of the Rebuild initiative.) Sturgis likely won’t be a top pick for Rebuild money, while Lawncrest will. Both are located in Philadelphia neighborhoods where poverty is rising, and in which, like the city as a whole, residents are becoming more diverse and younger.

Our goal was to better understand how rec centers are being used in these neighborhoods that are changing in ways that reflect citywide trends, and to explore how new investment in facilities might affect that. We asked people how often they visit, how they travel there, whom they come with, how long they stay and how safe they feel. We asked about their connection to the rec center, what would make them feel safer, and what would make them visit more often. Surveyors also made hourly notes of where people were in the spaces, their ages and genders, and the number of pedestrians passing by. (See charts for information.)

The data confirmed just how valuable these places are to the communities that surround them. Over 80 percent of respondents at both Sturgis and Lawncrest said they view the parks as neighborhood gathering places. Two-thirds of respondents at Sturgis and three-quarters at Lawncrest said they visit weekly. Exactly 62 percent at both parks said they learn about neighborhood opportunities there. Despite the gulf between the quality of their facilities, both remain places to chat with neighbors, exercise, and relax with friends and family. The data collected indicate that both places do a better than average job at encouraging visitors to talk to one another, build relationships that extend beyond the space and interact serendipitously. “Compared to other sites that have been surveyed, Sturgis and Lawncrest both reinforce social networks in a positive way,” says Kate DeSantis, designer and strategist at Gehl.

Yet, Sturgis evokes more unequivocally positive responses. When Gehl’s researchers asked park users how safe they felt at Lawncrest, the most common answer – 34 percent — was neutral. Only 46 percent felt “very” or “somewhat” safe from crime. Compare that to Sturgis, where 76 percent said they felt safe. At both parks, perceived safety coincided almost perfectly with visitors’ emotional attachment. While three-quarters of surveyed park users at Sturgis said they felt a positive connection to the park, only half at Lawncrest did. A third were merely neutral. Surveyed park users between the ages of 15 and 19 — a target demographic for the city’s parks and rec system — were less likely to feel safe and less likely to report a positive connection to the spaces, survey results show.

Gehl has done similar surveys in public spaces all across the United States. Because every site is so distinct, comparisons are done very carefully, with an eye to spatial, programmatic and geographic differences. “Public life in cities is really messy, there’s no apples to apples of anything,” says DeSantis.

When it comes to Sturgis and Lawncrest, the former is a far smaller site nestled in a residential area with a compact rec center, two playgrounds, and a handful of fields and courts. Lawncrest’s bigger center has a gym and an auditorium, an outdoor pool, and a larger cadre of fields and courts sprawling out from a bustling commercial corridor. Whereas Lawncrest’s football field gets ripped up by ATV riders, Sturgis keeps fields locked unless users have a permit.

But even after accounting for the differences, some conclusions can be drawn. A 2017 empirical study from the Center for Active Design quantified the impact of things like park maintenance and benches — both in short supply at Lawncrest — on people’s attitudes about a community. Researchers found that litter is associated with eroded civic trust while more seating is associated with greater levels. The poorer the conditions of a shared public space in general, the more neutral or negative the sense of civic trust, CfAD data showed. The disparate levels of positive connection and maintenance at the two parks surveyed by Gehl reflect a similar pattern.

“Their responses affirm what we said about middle neighborhoods,” says Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents both parks, and thinks a brand-new rec center at Lawncrest should be a Rebuild priority. “These are neighborhoods that are, right now, right on the tipping point for growth or decline. So if we don’t make the investment that we’re talking about, what is neutral today, what is a neutral perspective today, you come back five years and you let everything stay the same — no investment, with no engagement — that neutral will be a negative, and rightfully so.”

Gallery: What Philadelphia Residents Think About Sturgis and Lawncrest

The Kenney administration knows that it will take more than new playgrounds and basketball courts to serve the next generation. Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell is among those who hope that Rebuild strengthens the relationships among the city, the advisory councils and the neighborhoods they represent. “That’s what we see when we make physical improvements to parks, it’s a wonderful way to engage new supporters, to reengage old supporters who are tired and who feel their site has been ignored,” she says.

But exactly how to engage those new supporters, particularly teens, remains an open question. Ott Lovell and other city officials focused on Rebuild are working with the City Council and partners outside of City Hall — neighborhood organizations, citywide nonprofits and philanthropy — to involve more people in decision-making, but building relationships takes time and resources, both of which are in short supply.

Case in point: Lawncrest’s advisory council is significantly older and whiter than the population using the facility, while Sturgis’ council is dominated by people in their 60s. (Black males between the ages of 7 and 30 are both facilities’ greatest users, our research found.)

“What’s going to happen when I go?” asks Tina Campbell, a 53-year-old rec center staffer and volunteer dance coach at Lawncrest. “What’s going to happen when all these older generations go, who’s going to do what needs to be done?”

In many ways, the true test of Rebuild will not be whether state-of-the-art structures can be built. Sturgis’ example shows that they can. The question is, can the social and political systems that have traditionally kept these places running adapt to meet the needs of tomorrow’s city — and the youth who will grow up to lead it?

Designing Safe Spaces for Teens

Hackett’s first memory of Sturgis playground is of being chased out of it. White teenagers ran him off, while white cops stood by, watching.

“It’s funny how God works,” he says. Today, he’s not only advisory council president for Sturgis and its fiercest advocate, but also a ward committee person, president of the local civic association, and a member of both the local police advisory council and the citywide parks commission.

But some things don’t change. Teenagers represent a sticking point at both Sturgis and Lawncrest, though young men are both parks’ primary users.

Hackett and McDonald bemoan the lack of young parents involved in the rec center and cite the need to raise up young people to become future leaders on the advisory council, but Sturgis no longer offers programming to youth over 16. They cut the programming because teenagers were bringing guns to the park, Hackett says. “We put a stop to it; it was a safety issue.”

Jeff Hackett stands at a spray park at Sturgis. 

It wasn’t always that way. Hackett used to host a 26-and-under basketball league at Sturgis, against the recommendation of Parks and Recreation. Despite allowing a team that was all gang members, there were no fights that season, he says. “They policed themselves.”

Even without programming for older teens, 82 percent of visitors observed over two days at Sturgis were between the ages of 7 and 30. On a weekday, 85 percent of visitors were male. Lawncrest too skews toward young men. Though most of the indoor programming seemed to target women, Gehl observed that outside, between two-thirds and three-quarters of park visitors were boys and men.

Among visitors, there are different views on what the park needs. Whereas some surveyed about safety at Lawncrest said teenagers smoking pot and cigarettes contributed to their unease, and suggested increased police presence to curb it, one young man made a point to walk up to a Gehl researcher, after he’d completed the survey, to reiterate: “For real, we need that water fountain and more trash cans, one by every bench. And tell the cops to stop harassing people.”

Compared to the average user, youth between the ages of 15 and 19 reported less positive views of both Sturgis and Lawncrest and felt less safe in both, but had fewer specific suggestions for what they would improve, besides adding swings and benches. “Less bad people,” they suggested. “Less drugs. No things bad for little kids.” The very users most likely to be identified as part of the safety problem don’t feel all that safe themselves.

Nonetheless, DeSantis, of Gehl, says extreme age and gender imbalances in public space can leave women and others feeling unsafe. At Lawncrest, a group of 10-year-old boys told me if it was up to them, they’d get rid of the outdoor basketball courts. “That’s where the bullies” — i.e., the teenagers — “hang out,” one said. Another told me he saw a person passed out near the library because of drugs. “Overdose,” his aunt mouthed.

In addition to the broken glass and decrepit equipment, it was concerns about violence and drug dealing and “bad teenagers,” as Hackett puts it, that nearly led to Sturgis’ closure in the early 2000s.

Edwin Desamour, a volunteer and sometimes paid staffer at Waterloo Playground in North Philadelphia, knows those concerns well. Waterloo, too, had a reputation for having been “taken over” by drug dealers and addicts, he says. Kids and their parents avoided the space, sending out a ripple of civic distrust.

“In the beginning, the majority of the neighbors couldn’t stand the kids that were in the neighborhood,” says Desamour. “But when we opened up the playground and had the youth using the playground, you see the mentality start to change, because the kids had never had anywhere to go.” Now that the park is getting cleaned up, a block captain who had previously feuded with youth now has them knocking on his door to open the gate. “Now they know who Mr. Nelson is, they know who Mr. Carlos is down the block, they know who Miss Mary is,” says Desamour of the teens’ newfound relationships with neighborhood elders.

Groundbreaking for a playground redesign, funded by foundations and nonprofits, is expected to happen this fall, but Desamour and partners have already begun to lay the groundwork, asking the neighborhood for input, involving youth in beautification projects, and setting expectations around behavior, as Hackett and McDonald have done.

“There was lots of pushback at the beginning when I kept putting pressure like, ‘We don’t roll up here and smoke a blunt,’ or ‘We don’t throw trash on the floor here,’” he says. He didn’t ban anybody, but kids who didn’t like the new culture stopped showing up. Desamour engaged those who stayed in projects like constructing benches with Tiny WPA, a nonprofit that teaches youth how to build public furniture. When someone broke into the playground and vandalized their creations, the kids were distraught. Some of the same youth who had once been destructive themselves, now valued their park in a different way. Desamour says, “They felt that ownership with building things.”

In my conversations at Sturgis and Lawncrest, even with the relatively young, I was told time and again that kids and parents have changed, that this feeling of civic responsibility was a thing of the past. Leadership at Lawncrest told me they used to give kids $5 to pick up trash; now they seemingly won’t do it for any amount. Hackett and McDonald bemoaned the passing of an era when the entire neighborhood played a role in parenting the youth.

Desamour says at Waterloo, the playground makeover has had a hand in bringing those days back. Whereas before neighbors merely complained about the youth, “now you’ll see some of the ladies in the neighborhood, they will actually holler at a kid when he’s doing wrong, even though it’s not their kid, but it’s almost like an old-school community,” he says.

Erasing the Dividing Lines

Hackett doesn’t think that he and McDonald’s strict no-tolerance policy — no cursing, no violence, no substances — sends kids running from Sturgis. Like at Waterloo, those who can’t follow the rules leave; those who can, stay. To his mind, it’s really a space for children. “This is a kids’ environment,” he tells the teenagers. “You should be thanking them for letting you use their space.”

On any given day, though, the parks’ basketball courts are bouncing with young men. And the players tell me they feel their needs went overlooked in the rebuild. Isaiah Williams, who grew up down the street and has been coming to Sturgis his whole life, notices that more young children use the park after its makeover. But the basketball league was never restarted, the posts that prop up the nets are leaning, and the backboards weren’t replaced. “We told the person who runs the park that we need courts,” he says.

Hackett knows the players don’t like the cheap poles and backboards, but says replacing them wasn’t an option. He tried to form a youth panel to consult on the redesign, but had very little participation. Even his own sons weren’t consistent members. Early on, Sturgis’ rebuild was going to include adding a brand-new indoor gym. When that was scrapped, “we lost a lot of those young guys,” says Hackett. They felt cheated.

“I think it’s very important, the work that took place up to the build,” says Desamour. Trying to engage people after construction projects may be too late, but when people, and especially youth are involved in early on, “then you can build and people take ownership and respect it, and they want to protect it by all means.”

That feeling of ownership is a tricky thing. It’s what compels people like Desamour to volunteer, what drove Hackett and McDonald to fight for their rebuild at Sturgis, what made the Waterloo youth teary-eyed when their benches were vandalized. But when any small group makes decisions about a shared public space, there’s a risk that ownership can be used as a tool of exclusion.

Philadelphia learned that lesson this winter when the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, a private group of residents who manage the prestigious Center City park, got the city to ban sitting on the park’s limestone walls. With concerns about pot smoking and vandalism cited, many wondered if this wasn’t just a ploy to keep youth of color out of the park. Though the city eventually backtracked on the ban, the Friends group justified its attempted curtailment of legal uses of public space by citing the recent million-dollar investment they’d made to improve the walls.

Mike McCrae, president of the citywide advisory council that acts as support for all the individual ones, says similar scenarios can play out with rec center advisory councils. One group was running a South Philly rec center like a private club, he says, organizing youth leagues that intentionally kept the gym booked up and unavailable for public use. As a result, “some of the minority kids were literally relegated to the outside basketball court, but they weren’t allowed to play on the indoor basketball courts,” he says.

“I don’t want to say segregated,” McCrae insists, and then says it three more times.

Lawncrest’s advisory council president, Claudia Quinton, openly admits that representation is a problem. Since 2000, Lawncrest’s white population has declined by 20 percent, and its population of color increased by 133 percent. Today, the existing advisory council reflects a neighborhood that no longer exists.

“From a racial perspective, our community is far more diverse than our advisory council,” she says. “Age-wise, most of us are older. We do have some diversity on our council, but it would be great if we had more.”

It’s not that Lawncrest lacks for committed, caring young people or neighbors of color.

Tina Campbell, for example, is both a paid part-time staff member at the rec, and an unpaid coach. As we talk outside the center, she keeps calling out to young parents, some of whom she once coached on a drill team and who now bring their children to her dance classes. “Everyone getting so old I can’t handle it,” she beams, waving to another young man. “When I see that, and they’s like ‘Hey Miss T,’ I’m like ‘yes!’ He’s not on the corner selling drugs, he’s not running around packing a gun. He’s going to school, he’s doing what he needs to do. So that makes me feel good when I see those kids. And I feel like the rec is a part of that.” With a makeover, she thinks it could do more.

Campbell introduces me to Keisha Moore, who plays on the volleyball league, works at the after-school program, and volunteers as a dance coach. Her husband coaches basketball. Their two children cheer, play basketball and dance at the rec. Campbell jokes, “They should have beds here.”

Tina Campbell stands in a gym at Lawncrest.

But neither Moore nor her husband sits on Lawncrest’s advisory council; nor does Corrie Brown, president of the Lawncrest Lions athletic league, nor Campbell herself. When I ask why not, Brown cites a lack of time, though he’s trying to delegate more of his role so he can attend the meetings. Campbell and Moore say they hadn’t considered it before, but now they will.

“That would be great,” says Quinton. “They know much better what’s going on around here, what people want.”

Until now, she insists, getting neighbors beyond the usual few to show up to meetings has been a challenge. Time is a barrier for many. Quinton works full-time and attends grad school while also serving on the council, which involves monthly meetings about which programs and activities to run and how to spend the money collected from them. When I ask Hackett and McDonald how much time they spend at Sturgis a week, they look at each other and break into a loud cackle. “Realistically, more than my paid job,” says Hackett.

“It is a lot of work, and I know it’s difficult for a lot of rec leaders who have other things to worry about,” says Desamour, who has a background in working with at-risk youth. Many volunteers and rec center staff do not, even though the work Desamour describes doing at Waterloo closely resembles social work. During our phone call, he stops to talk to a teen who’s known for throwing rocks and bottles, giving staff trouble. “I want you in the playground, I want you behaving, but you have to respect the neighbors,” Desamour tells him. “School’s about to start, I better not get no calls from your teacher either.” It’s exhaustively relational, personal work.

A New Model for Supporting Rec Centers and Empowering Neighborhoods

Residents have played a role in running their own rec centers virtually since the Department of Parks and Recreation was founded in the 1950s. Though the department funded facilities, staff and some programming, volunteer groups quickly formed to supplement their efforts.

“Because there was never enough. Even back in the day, there was never enough money for programming,” says McCrae. “They always wanted to do more than the city could possibly think about doing.”

Over the decades, the city did less and less. The parks, playgrounds and rash of rec centers built in the heady 1950s deteriorated. The city reneged on an $8 million boost to the parks department budget in 2008, citing the recession, and never restored it. Today Philadelphia spends $58.90 per resident on parks each year, according to ParkScore. Minneapolis, the U.S. city with the highest-ranked park system, spends $232.59.

Given that lack, advisory councils and neighbors more broadly play a crucial role. They donate their time to coach sports and teach dance and organize etiquette classes. Councils will consider whether a proposed activity is appropriate for the rec to sponsor. (A Christmas caroling event, for example, was nixed at Lawncrest.) Instead of the city offering blanket programs across all rec centers, advisory councils ensure each location’s activities are tailored to the site. Quinton, aware that the council is nonrepresentative, still tries to steer rec center events toward inclusivity. Like when choosing playlists for a yard sale. “This isn’t a classic rock neighborhood anymore,” she says.

“Ultimately it’s the city funding that keeps those centers open, but the advisory councils are critical, absolutely critical, to keeping them well-programmed, and in many ways, holding the recreation staff accountable, and that’s not a bad thing, not unlike a PTA for a school,” says George Matysik, executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Parks Alliance. “You’d love to have a high level of engagement, that can really help to make a school better and it can certainly help to make a recreation center better.”

The councils are not unlike the city’s 120 park friends groups, also volunteer associations that may plan activities and fundraise for park improvements beyond what the city can provide. But advisory councils, which make decisions about rec centers and adjacent playground and park space, are unique in that they handle money raised through programming offered by the city. Campers pay a fee, for example; that money goes into a general fund. The council decides whether to spend it on T-shirts or new basketball hoops, or, increasingly, on major upkeep. Lawncrest’s council has been saving up to replace the gym floor. With the possibility of Rebuild funding dangled before them, they’re now uncertain whether to spend it.

These can be large sums of money — McCrae says councils are discouraged from hoarding more than $30,000 at a time — and the councils are accountable to the city to show their receipts. But Ott Lovell admits that the department has invested less resources in organizing advisory councils than it has in friends groups, because rec centers are staffed with employees, whereas most neighborhood parks are not. Though there’s a guidebook for how advisory councils are supposed to operate, in reality, they vary widely in their size, scope, inclusivity, formality and relationship to rec center staff. Some have gotten into trouble for abuse of funds. A team of about a dozen people from the Department of Parks and Recreation and the nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy meet weekly to talk about how to support park friends groups. “But to be honest, the network on the advisory council side has been really weak,” says Ott Lovell.

“The parks sphere is a very crowded sphere, whereas within recreation there really weren’t a lot of broad stakeholders working to improve, citywide, what the ground-floor organization looks like at the individual rec centers,” says Matysik, whose organization is now trying to fill that gap. With the approval of Rebuild, “we started to see that there was a big need to get a lot of these advisory councils established and organized.”

As at Lawncrest, Matysik says the problem is rarely that no neighbors are dedicated enough to do the work, but that they don’t know how to get involved in decision-making. Like Philadelphia’s system of ward leaders and committee people, advisory councils can be old boys’ clubs. They may have been meeting at the same time and place for decades, but not posting public notices. Those on the in know how to get involved; those new to the neighborhood don’t know how to start.

“How do you get the word out, how do you get people to know where these meetings are?” asks Campbell, who thinks public awareness is a problem at Lawncrest. She knows about community meetings because she works at the rec, “but I wouldn’t know that if I didn’t work here,” she says. Desamour says at Waterloo, the work has been even more basic than that. He’s been taking his time starting a friends group, educating people about the fundamentals of public meetings — agendas, minutes, rules of order. “You gotta meet people where they’re at,” he says.

Gallery: Philadelphia’s Lawncrest Rec Center

When organizing in neighborhoods without strong advisory councils, Matysik and the Parks Alliance start by going door to door. Then they convene a public meeting to ask, not what does this rec center need, but what does the neighborhood need. “For us that gets back to thinking of these as community centers, not athletic facilities,” says Matysik. Maybe a neighborhood really needs a health center, or job training programs that could be housed in a rec center. Matysik wants communities to ask those questions before the Rebuild money starts to flow. That means bringing more representative groups to the advisory council table now.

“We need to use Rebuild not just to rebuild what was there, but to think about what is now relevant to this community,” says Ott Lovell. She and the city just aren’t quite sure yet how they’ll go about it. If Lawncrest is chosen as a Rebuild site, for example, it won’t just be up to Council Member Parker — who is one of the fiercest advocates for a total demolition and rebuild — or to Quinton and the advisory council — who also want a new rec center and brand-new playground — how those funds get used. But while community engagement is a stated pillar of Rebuild, the city is still figuring out what that will mean.

Ott Lovell suggests conducting an assessment of the city’s advisory councils, like the department did with park friends groups several years ago, and then see how they’re doing throughout the Rebuild process. Officials told PlanPhilly that nonprofit partners working with Rebuild sites will be expected to prove they had done sufficient outreach, and that the city may experiment with new tactics like neighborhood ambassadors. That work hasn’t yet begun, and a budget for community engagement work has not yet been set.

Quinton and Bill Dolbow, president of Lawncrest’s neighborhood association, also hope Rebuild increases engagement, but they’re more cynical about it. Unlike Hackett and McDonald, who insist that a community must be organized before they try to secure funding, or Desamour, who believes that relationship-building must begin well before construction, both Quinton and Dolbow — who say they’ve tried and tried to get parents, particularly of color, involved — have a “build-it-and-they-will-come” attitude.

“If the money’s coming here, they’ll all show up at the meeting,” says Dolbow, of the athletic league parents and other stakeholders who haven’t been involved before.

Rebuild does call for 40 new positions to be created for painters, plumbers and other maintenance workers that can help with upkeep, though so far there is no plan under Rebuild to hire additional program staff.

Which worries folks at Lawncrest, who fear that the rec center will get torn down and replaced, and then deteriorate again for lack of staffing and maintenance. “That was our biggest concern [about Rebuild],” says McCrae. “You’re going to throw [$500 million] in here, but if we don’t have any more staff than we have now, then eventually the same thing is going to happen. In five more years, six more years, seven more years, these places are going to be falling apart again because they have no one taking care of them. Because it’s nobody’s job.”

Advisory councils who have been through the lean years, receiving little support from the city, “want to support what’s going on at the center but they also don’t want to take over responsibility for things the city normally does,” McCrae continues. As Hackett and McDonald are now dismayed to learn, once neighbors start to take on more responsibilities, they might be stuck with them. When a freezer broke down at Sturgis, just weeks after the city had come out to inspect it, they and other neighbors donated their own freezers rather than wait for the city to fix it. McDonald stocks the concession stand with her own money; Hackett has cut the football field himself. Rec center staff can turn over relatively quickly, so it’s up to neighbors to provide consistency.

“You don’t give us what we’re supposed to have, you don’t give us what the city says is required, so we go in our pocket, or we’ll do something to raise funds and do it ourselves,” says McDonald. “You can’t wait for the city to do something. You have to take pride in where you live, say what you want, pull together, do it, and then the city will come along.”

This can create a paradoxical tension between councils and rec center staff. Hackett and McDonald feel empowered to spend their own money, in addition to council money, to make sure their rec gets whatever it needs. As a result, they suspect that staff sometimes resent their initiative. But when staff rely on them too heavily, they balk.

“Why are they asking me to run a seniors’ program? You’re getting paid,” says McDonald. “We don’t want your job, we’re just trying to make your job easier.” Hacket laughs, “We don’t even really want our job.” Both have tried to step back from the council multiple times, but fear what will happen if they do so without adequate replacements. “We’ve put in too many hours, too many years, to get this where it is to just walk away,” says McDonald.

Desamour, too, looks forward to the day when Waterloo can operate on its own, without him. His advice to parks that may receive Rebuild funding: Identify your community’s natural leaders, and start to build up their capacity now — particularly among the youth. “If I have this kid and he’s a leader, if I can break through to him and get him on the positive side, I just saved me a lot of work,” he says.

When Campbell compares Sturgis to Lawncrest, that’s the biggest difference she sees — leadership on the one side, and its lack on the other. “The rec center over there is so clean. Swings, they have everything, but they fought for that,” she says. “It’s time for someone to care about Lawncrest. The things that Sturgis has, we should be able to have that too.”

Next City’s coverage of Philadelphia’s changing neighborhoods is made possible with the support of the William Penn Foundation.

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Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at

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