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After concerns of violence closed a pool and several Playstreets, neighborhood groups are working to shift perceptions of Kensington

Police cite safety concerns, but these losses eliminate some of the safe spaces for children in the neighborhood. It becomes a community effort to keep things up and running for the kids.

Families and kids come and enjoy the weather and outdoor activities at McPherson Square Play Park, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, on Tuesday, Aug., 2, 2022.
Families and kids come and enjoy the weather and outdoor activities at McPherson Square Play Park, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, on Tuesday, Aug., 2, 2022.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

When you drive down the 1900 block of East Monmouth Street on a hot summer day, it’s essentially a ghost town. And you’ll see the same scene on the 2000 block of East Orleans Street.

Both blocks are in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, and were recently denied a Playstreets designation by the Philadelphia Police Department after it decided that this would be too unsafe.

“The most important concern for the department is the safety of these kids,” said Sgt. Eric Gripp, a department spokesperson.

Police along with support from the Parks and Recreation Department designate Playstreets based on a number of criteria, including participation from residents and proximity to other Playstreets. In the end, it is the police who decide whether a street gets the designation, after they assess safety concerns, crime, and impact on emergency services.

This one-two punch to the community came at the same time as Parks and Rec’s decision to shut down the pool at McVeigh Recreation Center, which was sharing lifeguards with nearby Scanlon pool in order to be able to open at all.

» READ MORE: 6 things you (probably) didn't know about Philadelphia's public pools

Drive a few short minutes and turn down the 1900 block of East Wishart Street and you’ll find Ashley Bailey, her sister, and their mother standing guard as three of her nieces and nephews splashed around.

Bailey has to clean up needles and garbage before pumping up a pool for the kids to escape the heat.

Her block is one of the Playstreets that shut down this year, which she found out about through her block captain. She’s not surprised. Violence plagues the street so much they rarely come out anymore.

“We have a lot of kids on this block and we’re the only people out here,” she said.

She described gun violence happening during Playstreets and being afraid to let the little kids play outside. She’s lived on the block for two years and the violence has steadily gone up.

» READ MORE: A West Philly grandmother decided to save summer with a PlayStreet. Then, tragedy struck.

“They send people out here to clean up the neighborhoods and stuff but it’s not working,” she said.

Each year, Playstreets fluctuate in number depending on multiple factors. If a street was previously a Playstreet but no longer meets the criteria, the designation is not automatic. Conversely, a Playstreet can be reopened another year if conditions improve, Gripp said.

When Kensington’s McVeigh pool was shut down due to violence, Bailey wasn’t surprised.

Nor was Leslie Bland, who was present for the July 21 assault and vandalism at McVeigh and has lived in the area for 18 years. She says she isn’t shocked by the closure, and is happy to help out at Scanlon pool, which increased its hours after McVeigh closed, and has been beautified with the help of Tiny WPA.

“I come and sweep up the trash and they supply me with bags and gloves,” she said. “I don’t mind sweeping up and volunteering because my granddaughter be out here.”

Bland also says the 76ers are sponsoring a new basketball court next to the pool, which is already underway. “I can’t say they not trying,” she said of city officials.

After 19 years, Kensington mom Yabira Valentin is ready to leave the neighborhood. As she sat on new chairs at Scanlon Pool, her eyes kept drifting to her 13-year-old son wading in the shallow end of the pool.

“I don’t let my son out,” she said. “There’s just a lot going on.”

But after finding out that Scanlon pool is free and recently renovated, she decided to give it a shot and bring her son. A nurse, she has Mondays and Tuesdays off. As the temperatures continue to rise day after day, the clear blue pool is a nice reprieve for the mother of one. Still, she doesn’t let her son out of her sight.

Her block on Thayer Street is a Playstreet this year but she instead elects to watch him on her own.

While many parents, including Bland and Valentin, have been hesitant to bring their children and grandchildren outside for Playstreets or swimming (in fact, this is the first year Valentin has brought her son to the pool), many others see real change happening at what Parks and Recreation is calling Playparks.

‘A comprehensive strategy’

In the spirit of collaboration and community care, Parks and Recreation teamed up with community groups NKCDC, Impact, CLIP, Tiny WPA, Philadelphia Library, Rapping About Prevention (RAP), Fab Youth Philly, and the Police Department to create Playparks, a larger version of the Playstreets that were shut down in Kensington.

These Playparks currently take place in three locations: Hissey Park, Harrowgate Park, and McPherson Park, each of which have similar reputations of being spaces with heavy drug use.

Driving by these parks on a program day, the juxtaposition is stark. On the outskirts of the space, a crowd of 25 or more can be seen actively using drugs, their bodies limp from the waist up, a few yards away from a mounted police officer. According to Parks and Rec’s Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, the community was “crystal clear” about wanting a police presence at these programs.

Walk into the playground, though, and you’ll find an oasis of music, free food, and face painting. It could be any other park in the city, and you would never know what was happening outside the fun zone if you didn’t have to walk through it to get there.

“We’re constantly going back to the drawing board,” Lovell said. “... We’re always listening to the residents about what we can do differently.” When asked about the drug use happening outside of the Playparks, Lovell said, “It’s heart-wrenching, and it’s unique to Kensington.”

In an effort to keep kids from coming in contact with needles, the Parks and Rec crew has teamed up with CLIP and the Center for Employment Opportunities to do constant needle sweeps at all three locations in Kensington. On top of that, park rangers hand out palm cards that have information explaining what activities are appropriate in the parks.

Perpetuating a narrative’

“One of the unintended consequences of something failing is that it contributes to the existing narrative,” said Casey O’Donnell, Impact Service’s CEO. “When something doesn’t work, most people will say, ‘Oh, that was predictable. That type of failure is why Kensington fails.’”

It’s no secret that Kensington, a deeply multicultural and community-oriented section of Philadelphia, has a negative reputation. Many believe that the program shutdowns only sustain the preconceived ideas of the neighborhood.

“I want people to be very cautious assuming that 12- and 13-year-olds woke up that day as a bad person,” said Bill McKinney, NKCDC’s executive director. He added that Philadelphians need to give these kids the benefit of the doubt, as many of them are being traumatized on a regular basis. In fact, just this year, there have been 134 shootings of children younger than 18 in the city as of Aug. 4.

“Trauma and behavioral concerns go hand in hand,” said Dani Enguero, a Youth Peer Navigator at NAMI Philadelphia. “These children have fears and anxieties about the communities they call home and within these communities, mental health is highly stigmatized.”

Enguero stresses there should be more resources for children to have an outlet where they feel heard, seen, and safe. Without these outlets, she said, that’s when you start to see the behavioral health concerns.

Community organizers, who are deeply rooted in the Kensington neighborhood on a daily basis, agree that if the city doesn’t like the way the kids are acting, it needs to invest in their livelihoods and quality of life.

“How do we make next summer part of a broader comprehensive plan?” O’Donnell asks. “As far as I’m concerned, [Playparks] was Parks and Rec saying, ‘Lets do something now so we can support kids this summer.’”

Lovell says Parks and Rec is battling the Kensington narrative by responding to community needs.

While several organizations and departments are working together to make the parks safe for kids, the path to the parks is one of McKinney’s concerns. “Parents won’t send their kids to these parks,” he said. “There is no safe passage to get to the library a lot of the time.”

It’s clear that the kids who do make it to the park are getting to enjoy memorable days and a sense of inclusion in summertime in Philly. But the kids not out on the former Playstreets, likely confined to their homes, are bound to have a much different experience.

“We tried everything we could to open McVeigh, but the reality of what happened created an obstacle for us with the staff not feeling safe there,” Lovell said. “... If we take away, we try to put in more. If Playstreets get shut down, we set up Playparks, which is 10 times more fun. Now, you gotta get to the park, which is a challenge for some, but it’s way more activity than you’ll see on your street.”

The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.