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Why this ex-chef’s pastime is cleaning Philly parks of needles | Helen Ubiñas

Not all heroes wear capes. One wears a cap that reads, “Mr. Clean and Safe Parks.”

Raphael Feliciano, aka Mr. Clean and Safe Parks, standing inside McPherson Square Park, one of the many neighborhood parks he tends to daily.
Raphael Feliciano, aka Mr. Clean and Safe Parks, standing inside McPherson Square Park, one of the many neighborhood parks he tends to daily.Read moreHelen Ubiñas / Staff

It’s quiet in McPherson Square Park on this early weekday morning. It will be a few hours before the library up the hill opens its doors, less before the daily strain between criminality and compassion unfolds in the Kensington neighborhood around it. But already the man is pecking at the ground with a pair of kitchen tongs.

His name is Raphael Feliciano, and about a year ago he branded himself “Mr. Clean and Safe Parks.”

The 42-year-old father of two young men, ages 18 and 20, wears a cap with that name, designed by a England-based artist who saw on Feliciano’s Instagram posts what he was doing to keep his neighborhood parks clean and safe. The former Vegas casino cook comes by his moniker honestly.

Nearly every day, long before the neighborhood sparks to life, before adults set out for work, and children for school, during a rare pause in the tense standoff between those building a life and those on the cusp of losing theirs, Feliciano goes to work.

He uses a tool from his old trade to pinch syringes; one, then another, and then dumps them into the bio boxes he carries in his backpack.

Even when he’s not on the clock as a seasonal worker for the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, or earning extra cash as a tattoo artist, he is at one park or another, picking up needles and trash, calling in downed trees, raking out gardens, putting a fresh coat of paint on a wall here, a couple of benches there. “It’s not just needles, it’s about beautifying, too,” he says into the phone camera he uses to document his efforts on Instagram as, you guessed it, @mr.clean_and_safeparks.

“That’s why I started the brand,” he tells me as we walk around the park, “to raise awareness.”

His eyes scan the ground as we talk. Even before we met that morning, he’d already collected dozens of syringes that he later dumped into one of the city’s needle drop boxes located right outside the park. He’s a fan of the boxes, and of a lot of the other efforts the city has made in the long-neglected neighborhood that he grew up in – near Norris Square Park, another park he cares for.

McPherson Park, at least, is a lot cleaner since the city turned its attention to the neighborhood plagued by drug addiction. But it doesn’t take long to find remnants of its despair. This winter, a syringe was frozen in the ice.

He feels for the drug users. Whatever people may think of them — and around the neighborhood most affected, among citizens gone unheard and unconsidered for far too long — everyone has an opinion. His? The people addicted to drugs usually cause more harm to themselves than anyone else. Some drop their needles wherever they use them. Others stick them into the ground, hidden until the snow melts, or the rain-swelled dirt pushes the needles to the surface, an ugly truth unearthed.

Feliciano doesn’t try to romanticize the North Philadelphia neighborhood his family moved to by way of Puerto Rico. There was crime and drugs there long before the latest opioid epidemic. But the way he remembers it, parks seemed to be off-limits, a respite from whatever was going on beyond their borders.

Nothing seems off-limits anymore. Drug dealers have threatened him as he cleaned. The day we met, there was a needle under the bench where a young man read a small Bible, all kinds of paraphernalia used to shoot up near the tree where a police cruiser was parked. And while the needles get the headlines, the garbage is sometimes worse. Feliciano likes to open the bags and figure out where they’ve come from. It’s only neighborly to let people know they’ve lost something.

An hour or so into our visit, a young couple walking past with their dog smile at him.

“Thank you for what you do,” the woman says in a near whisper.

The acknowledgement seems to catch him off guard, but he manages a tip of the hat, of sorts. Mr. Clean and Safe Parks at your service.