It took two days and a thousand gallons of water for Bobbie Ann Tilkens-Fisher and Matthew Fisher to realize a backup plan for summer. They ran a hose from the second-floor bathroom to a blow-up pool in the yard of their Fishtown home, dumped some chlorine into the water, hooked up the filtration pump, and settled in for a long, hot season.
Without the prospect of camp, preschool, or play dates — never mind a real vacation — the $100, indigo-colored Intek pool was the best option the couple could find to keep their 3-year-old son, Milo, entertained. Summer will be lived largely within the confines of their 30-by-14-foot yard.
They are not the only ones who are cobbling together DIY strategies to get through the next few months. City officials, neighborhood groups, and businesses across the city are scrambling to salvage some traditional outdoor activities. We may not know whether the schools will open in the fall. We don’t know when people will start returning to their offices. But it seems likely that summer will not be lived entirely online.
Summer has always been Philadelphia’s signature season, the time of year when the city becomes the beating heart of America with its Independence Day fireworks and regattas on the Schuylkill. But the pandemic’s demand for isolation runs counter to this city’s party-loving sensibility. Summer here is for mingling. It’s about plunging into the sweaty mass of humanity on the Parkway for Made in America. It’s about the generations coming together for family reunions in Fairmount Park. It’s about firing up the grill and inflating the bounce house for a neighborhood block party. It’s about crowding the urban midway of Spruce Harbor Park and lounging in hammocks.
Now the pandemic has redefined what the summer of 2020 will be. All those big, crowd-drawing events have been canceled — even our main brand, Welcome America. Rec centers are shut tight, and officials say nearly a thousand rims have been removed from city basketball courts. Beer gardens and public pools are dry. While city and state health protocols are in flux, it’s reasonable to expect most restrictions to remain at least through Labor Day. In a city where most residents live in modest rowhouses, and get by on modest budgets, the living will definitely not be easy.
But never underestimate the ability of Philadelphians to find a workaround. Residents are already adapting the rituals of summer to the realities of the pandemic.
So, while we won’t see street festivals like Odunde on South Street or Supper Sessions in Mount Airy, there’s a growing chance that the traveling Parks-on-Tap beer garden scene could be resurrected for this time of social distancing. Restaurateur Avram Hornik, who has run the program for several years, and is eager to put some of his 500 employees back to work, has petitioned the city to operate five fixed locations, using the now-familiar strategy of taking temperature checks at the entrance, ordering food remotely, and installing sneeze guards on the food trucks. “There could be a stack of sanitized chairs at the entrance,” he told me. “Or, maybe, we’ll have a ‘bring your own chair’ policy.”
It’s a small thing, but being able to down a beer in a plastic cup while sitting in a plastic chair would go a long way to making it feel like a real Philadelphia summer.
The Old City and East Passyunk business districts are also looking for ways to institute a modified version of their weekly happy hours. “We just don’t want it to turn into New Orleans,” with people walking around with to-go cups, said Old City’s Job Itzkowitz.
For families, there are bigger things to worry about, like finding someone to watch the kids. The good news is that there will be summer camp. It just won’t resemble anything we’ve known before.
Even though the rec centers will remain closed for the season, the city has decided to offer a stripped-down version of its camp program, said Kathryn Ott Lovell, the director of parks and recreation. To minimize what she calls “the usual structured chaos,” campers will be organized in small groups and won’t be allowed to mix for sports or crafts. There will be no pool time, no field trips. In a normal year, the city enrolls 8,000 kids in its camp programs. The number of spots will probably be reduced this year, Lovell said, but the city wants to “reserve spaces for parents who have no alternative,” like low-income households and families of essential workers. “It will be more like child care and less like camp,” Lovell concedes. Existing reservations will be honored.
Maybe that’s why families with the financial means are taking matters into their own hands. I spoke with several parents who are forming “superfamilies” and setting up their own mini camps. Gary King, a father of three who works as the literacy coordinator for Mount Airy CDC, was approached by two families on his block about hiring someone to watch their collective brood. Hornik and several friends are taking the concept up a notch: They want to rent a 15-seat van and hire a counselor for day trips to local parks. Meanwhile, Cindy Powell, who runs the Miquon Day Camp in Conshohocken, says her phone is “blowing up” with calls from desperate parents. Miquon has capped enrollment at 400 campers, about 150 fewer than usual, to maintain social distancing.
King would normally be spending his summer managing reading camps in Germantown. But because those sessions depend on senior citizen volunteers, the city felt they were too risky and canceled the instruction. It’s not lost on King that his kids will get plenty of stimulation this summer, while those in low-income neighborhoods could see their reading skills nose-dive.
The city’s social divide is even more evident in the debate over whether to close city streets to cars. Urbanists have been pushing the Kenney administration to create a network of car-free streets to relieve crowding along the Schuylkill River Trail and at other downtown parks. Neighborhood groups argue that closing the outer lanes on the Parkway would be an easy lift, especially given how light traffic is right now. A car-free network could also make it easier for novice bicyclists to get to work once employers start calling people back.
The list of cities that have created miles of car-free streets grows by the day: New York, Oakland, Minneapolis, Boston, Milan, Paris, London — even West Chester. So why won’t Mayor Jim Kenney budge on the issue?
His administration has complained about the cost of policing car-free streets, especially at a time when the city budget is being whacked. But the administration seems equally concerned about the optics: Many of the candidates for car-free streets are in wealthier neighborhoods. Several Council members are adamantly opposed to the car-free networks and argue that creating all that public space would lead to a free-for-all of bad behavior. “We make everything a party here,” Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez told me with a sigh, referring to her Kensington-area district. “We do not have the level of compliance and discipline we need” to fight the virus. “We have people in cars smoking hookahs. We have underground social clubs.”
She takes a different view of the city’s Playstreets program, which involves closing off block-long stretches during the day for supervised activities. Lovell said her department is making a big push to permit 350 blocks of play streets and to recruit volunteers to oversee them. “If kids can’t get to the rec center, then we’ll bring joy to them,” she said. The city plans to hand out Hula Hoops, Nerf balls, and sidewalk chalk to enrich the experience, and may help provide spray nozzles for fire hydrants.