As Awilda Ocasio walked toward the crowded playground in Kensington's McPherson Square Park on a warm afternoon recently, a school-uniformed boy shouted a question:
"When are we going to do karaoke again?"
As soon as classes end, Ocasio promised. And then she smiled.
"Kids are starting to call this park 'their' park," said Ocasio, president of the year-old Friends of McPherson Square Park. "There was so much apathy before. Last year, we planted about 90 trees, beautiful trees, and the kids on the playground now will be here to see them grow. We've come a long way."
Saturday is the kickoff for the third annual Love Your Park Week, an eight-day citywide celebration of the more than 10,000 acres that make Philadelphia's one of the world's largest urban-park systems. The week is an expansion of Love Your Park Day, a long-standing cleanup day held twice a year. More than 80 events are planned, including live music, art classes, and group picnics. The goal is to bring residents back to their favorite parks, introduce them to new ones, and help the parks remain thriving, busy places that provide a focus for their neighborhoods.
"We want people to celebrate and enjoy our parks," said Kathryn Ott Lovell, who heads the nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy, which coordinates the event with the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. One of the conservancy's mottoes, she said, is "not, 'Bring parks back to life,' but, 'Bring people back to parks.' If people aren't using the parks, then they're not vital, and any improvements aren't worth anything."
During 2012's weeklong celebration, there were 40 events; this year, there will be twice as many, including craft and plant sales, takeaway-art programs, guided walks and lectures, and group picnics.
Ocasio hopes the events will bring new visitors to McPherson Square so she can show them the change from what was once "Needle Park" - a place for drug users to dump their trash.
"In the past, the community didn't want to come here. They'd say, 'There's nowhere to sit. There's no place for my kids to play,' " said Patty-Pat Kozlowski, who works in the stewardship division of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.
Now, the one piece of equipment the park used to have - an old, twisted slide with a hole in it - has been replaced with a full playground. There are benches where parents can sit while their children play, and picnic tables where they can enjoy a meal al fresco. A mobile police unit is a near-constant presence. More than 85 trees planted last year are thriving.
Kozlowski said people and groups were requesting permits from Parks and Rec to hold events in McPherson Square. Neighbors have taken an active interest in maintaining the progress. She pointed to several houses on the border: That man helped build the benches. That man keeps an eye out for wrongdoing.
"Five years ago," she said, "people would never have thought that something so big and so good could happen here."
Maureen Tate, who chairs the park committee for the Cedar Park Neighbors association, said the same about her West Philadelphia park. Ten years ago, a cyclone fence surrounded the grounds, "making it look more like a cage than a park," Tate said. Most residents avoided the area, especially at night, leaving it open to drug dealers and users.
Through neighbors' efforts, the fence came down, gardens were planted, and the World War I monument, installed in 1924 and long neglected, was cleaned. For the first time, there are lights in the park. New benches and new paths have further improved the scene.
"To us, it's a sign that something is afoot," Tate said. "Something's changing. The improved park reflects the improved morale of the neighborhood."
Love Your Park Week also inspires volunteers such as Tate, who have long worked to improve their communities. Because of it, they now feel they have official support and are happy to be showcased by the organizers.
"I feel like I'm part of something bigger," she said. "It's nice to know it's happening all over the city and not just in our neighborhood."
In fact, it's a good idea to get out of your neighborhood, Lovell said, and not just during Love Your Park Week. Lovell is a fourth-generation Philadelphian, but she had never visited Wissahickon Valley Park in Northwest Philadelphia until she took her job at the conservancy three years ago.
"I grew up in a rowhouse and didn't spend much time outside my five-block area. Now, I was a 30-something-year-old woman who hadn't been there," she said. "I went and I was blown away. I called my mom from the park and said, 'Oh my God, how could we never have come here?' "
Now, Lovell and her family are frequent Wissahickon visitors. She often visits other parks, too, and usually finds herself excited by the trips.
"Each neighborhood has its own Wissahickon in some way," she said. "We need to really lift and showcase our parks."
PARTIES FOR PARKS
Love Your Park Week runs from Saturday to May 17. Most events - a traveling class called Art in the Park, a variety of musical performances - are free. Some have charges ranging from $2 to $25. A few highlights:
Saturday Pie in the Sky Festival: Food trucks and kite-flying in Penn Treaty Park, 1341 N. Delaware Ave. Noon to 6 p.m.
Sunday Mother's Day Fest: Bring mom to Franklin Square for brunch, flower- craft activity, and tickets for the Parx Liberty Carousel and Philly Mini Golf. 11 a.m.-1 p.m., $25. 200 N. Sixth St.
May 16 Edible Bugs Dinner: Come hungry and learn about the delicious and sustainable practice of eating insects. 6 p.m., $5 (registration required), Wissahickon Environmental Center, 300 Northwestern Ave.
May 17 Spring Love Your Park Day: Join the Friends of Marconi Plaza for a park cleanup, then pony rides, face- painting, and food. The American Cancer Society will hold a Relay for Life event. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Marconi Plaza, Broad Street and Oregon Avenue.
Find a full calendar at loveyourpark.org/