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Philly prepares to rehab rec centers, playgrounds, and libraries

In 1992, Anthony Washington helped raise money to fence in West Kensington's Nelson Playground, creating a safe haven for neighborhood children at the height of Philadelphia's crime epidemic.

The baseball fields behind John Welsh Elementary School.
The baseball fields behind John Welsh Elementary School.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

In 1992, Anthony Washington helped raise money to fence in West Kensington's Nelson Playground, creating a safe haven for neighborhood children at the height of Philadelphia's crime epidemic.

Two years later, the city provided new playground equipment.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the monkey bars and metal slides are showing the wear and tear of 22 years. The playground's swings were taken out a few years ago because they were no longer safe, leaving freestanding metal poles to rust away.

Washington, 48, who has been the recreation leader at Nelson Playground since 1994, might finally see new playground equipment, along with an expansion of the rec center that houses a computer lab, a shelf full of trophies, and a few creepy-crawly pets.

Nelson is one of the 73 playgrounds, recreation centers, and libraries identified as "high need" in Mayor Kenney's $600 million Rebuild initiative.

The rebuild plan - the brainchild of Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis - will rehab aging playgrounds, libraries, and run-down recreation centers. Some will receive new buildings; most will get at least cosmetic touch-ups. In a few cases, facilities will be moved to put a library, rec center, and health center all in one location.

The city is borrowing $300 million to pay for the six-year plan; an additional $100 million to $150 million is to come from philanthropic foundations. State and federal grants and the city will cover the rest.

Kenney has indicated that the first projects will begin next spring.

The managing director's office has put together a preliminary list of facilities most in need of help but is awaiting City Council's return this week before creating a final priority order. The preliminary list was determined by various factors, including structural needs of each facility as well as how an area fares in terms of poverty, crime, health risks, and economic development.

"It's going to be somewhat subjective over the life of the system," said Brian Abernathy, first deputy managing director who is leading the rebuild preparations.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose Seventh District is home to Nelson Playground, said that she was concerned about how facilities get prioritized.

"Their number one to me is Fifth and Master Streets," she said, referring to the Cruz Recreation Center just north of Northern Liberties, in a quickly gentrifying area. "I don't consider that a top priority."

Quiñones-Sánchez sees Nelson Playground and the rec center at Fifth and Allegheny to be in much more immediate need.

"When you look at the zip code and the need, there's nothing else for the residents there," she said.

Abernathy insists that the rankings so far were not the final priority list but were instead meant to "drive a conversation."

The first projects will likely be about a dozen facilities that need only a quick fix, DiBerardinis said.

"For example, a facility that is in good shape and needs paving and some new equipment," he said. "The ones that require limited design work."

DiBerardinis said the city would host town-hall meetings to get community input.

In the meantime, rec leaders are dreaming about potential improvements coming to their raggedy centers.

Washington said he can't wait for new playground equipment and an expanded building that can fit more computers and perhaps a day care.

Not to mention some storage space. The computer lab is crammed with dozens of boxes of donated sneakers, bins with balls and sports equipment, bookshelves, and three glass tanks - two for snakes and one for Spidey, a tarantula.

Nelson Playground is one of the few rec centers open until 10:30 p.m. during the school year.

"It's safer that the kids are here than out on the street," said Eric Henninger, a district supervisor for the Parks and Recreation Department.

Nelson Playground is surrounded by abandoned buildings and vacant fields. The area is poor, and many of the area children need more than just a place to play.

"Kids coming hungry; household structures change," Washington said. "You have to sit down and listen to them and encourage them to do better."

Washington, who lives in the neighborhood, takes pride that in his 22 years as rec leader, he has helped 47 youths become college graduates.

"I start with them in ninth grade, getting them focused on where they want to go for college," he said. "I stay on them with their grades."

In addition to college help, Washington also coaches baseball at Cassiano Field at Fourth and Dauphin Streets. And he helps run the pool at Waterloo Playground, five blocks from Nelson.

The coming changes can only help things, he said.

"By upgrading the facilities, it enhances everything," Washington said. "It will increase the number of children who use our facilities. . . . It will make it safer."