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For DiBerardinis, Philly parks are a field of dreams

Mike DiBerardinis' first summer back in the city broiled with challenges. Recreation centers sat empty, basketball courts were crime scenes with bullet casings and yellow police tape, and about a third of pools never opened at all.

Mike DiBerardinis' first summer back in the city broiled with challenges.

Recreation centers sat empty, basketball courts were crime scenes with bullet casings and yellow police tape, and about a third of pools never opened at all.

That was in 2009, and DiBerardinis, head of the newly merged Parks and Recreation Department, told Mayor Nutter that if he didn't get all the pools open the next summer, "you can fire me."

Now it's the fall of 2010. DiBerardinis is not only still here, but pondering the leafy trails in Cobbs Creek Park, wondering how to work a similar miracle there.

Within the rolling forest of 829 acres, the leaves have turned shades of gold and orange. Red-tail foxes and migrating birds such as great blue herons make their homes. There's a watershed, a golf course, and an ice-skating rink. There are also empty drug packets on unlit paths, trash floating in the creek, and hammocks tied to trees where homeless men sleep - all of which keeps joggers, walkers, and nature lovers at bay.

For DiBerardinis, the park symbolizes the challenge of his department, and what's at stake. Studies show that when public space is used, it's safe. Children are safer and healthier when they're involved in recreational activities. People weigh outdoor and recreational programs when deciding where to live. And businesses consider where to open based on recreational amenities for their workers.

"We are deeply rooted in neighborhoods through playgrounds, parks, and rec," DiBerardinis said of his department one recent afternoon. "We are deeply tied to the community. So, how do you make that work for kids? How do we work together to extend that value? That's the expectation or demand we have now."

On Wednesday, DiBerardinis will make yet another big announcement involving the city's ice-skating rinks - a partnership with Comcast-Spectator, and millions of dollars.

DiBerardinis' battle to knit city services into the fabric of tattered neighborhoods began three decades ago, when he was a fiery housing activist who frequently found himself in handcuffs for the cause. He admittedly "still burns pretty hot."

In 1992, he became Mayor Ed Rendell's recreation commissioner, working with neighbors to light fields, plug leaky facility roofs, and, once, reopen a site long abandoned to drug dealers. Eight years later, he went to Harrisburg as Gov. Rendell's state secretary of natural resources. But he was never able to work that neighborhood thing out of his system.

In his current post, he's responsible not only for recreation centers, but parks - the entire Fairmount Park System - and the Free Library as well.

That means creating, expanding, and combining programs at 150 recreation centers, 138 parks, and 54 libraries - during an economic meltdown.

"It's a one-time deal," he said of the merger. "It's not going to happen ever again, so we want to do it right."

Keeping kids safe, healthy, and ready to learn, "that's a complex conversation, and a complete set of programs we have to put into play that are fun and exciting, right?" DiBerardinis said, then laughed. "We have to unleash the youthful enthusiasm and curiosity on one hand, and make sure we get to those meaningful outcomes."

DiBerardinis' words come in a gallop. He injects "look" to underscore a point, and gives affirmations of "right, right" to make sure his audience is still along for the ride. He looks younger than his 61 years, and stands about 6 feet, often tieless, with a thicket of black hair. He asks rhetorical questions, and he spits out solutions.

"His approach is, let's find a way for this to happen," said Haile Johnston, who founded a healthy-food program at Mander Recreation Center in Strawberry Mansion. "Instead of the first answer being no, creativity is encouraged."

After the pool closures last summer, DiBerardinis, known for his temper, held a meeting at which his disappointment morphed into determination, according to one staffer. "Whatever we do," DiBerardinis said, "we're going to open all of our pools next year." The city needed $600,000, and several aides wondered if and how it would get it.

In a city of neighborhoods, DiBerardinis got the city to expand its pool fund-raising campaign so community folks could raise money for their neighborhood pools. Through events such as a talent show, basketball tournament, and cow-chip bingo, residents raised $140,000 for the campaign. Private donations also swelled, and a $400,000 check from First Niagara Bank put the city over the top.

"If you wait for the money, it ain't coming," DiBerardinis said of the scarcity of government resources. "But if you believe you can work with the leadership across the board, and bring a higher value to the asset, you heighten your odds of winning."

The successful pools campaign ushered in a summer of big dreams in 2010.

At Shissler Recreation Center in Fishtown, where generations played baseball under the mantra "we do it on cinders," DiBerardinis unveiled a field of emerald-green grass. The effort was part of a $1.2 million greening and youth-development project extending from Shissler to the Delaware River.

"It's one of the most transformative things that I've seen," said 34-year-old A.J. Thomson, who like his father grew up swinging a bat at rocky Hetzell Field. "To have 50, 60 years' worth of sports playing on cinders, and within two months, it's grass now - it almost brings tears to your eyes."

In early September, DiBerardinis stood near the rotted bleachers and yellowed grass of Hunting Park's baseball field with Mayor Nutter and Phillies slugger Ryan Howard to announce the building of a new field, part of a multiphase, multimillion-dollar project to rehab the 87-acre park, pocked by trash, muggings, prostitution, and drugs.

Two weeks later, he stood outside Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philly, as residents cheered, to announce the first ever multisite Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy. By next fall, both Anderson and FDR Park will offer a host of academic and recreational programs - a project that DiBerardinis said was dead about four years ago.

"Resources follow value," DiBerardinis explained. "But in the end you have to deliver. If you don't deliver, you lose your partners."

DiBerardinis grew up in Downingtown during the 1950s, when it was a small, working-class Chester County town surrounded by farmland. His father, like most of the men, worked in the paper mills. His mother was a homemaker, caring for him and his four siblings.

At 18, swept up in the tide of the civil rights and antiwar movements, he moved to Philadelphia to study political science at St. Joseph's University and "fell in love with the city."

In the '80s, as a community organizer, he ran youth programs in Kensington and moved hundreds of people into abandoned, tax-delinquent homes.

"I was a serious outsider," he said, then laughed. "I mean, I was out there, and I still believe in that. I always bring that to the work. I learned that the people with the problems generally have the answers. They generally know what's good for their communities and their families. If you believe that, and also that people really care about their neighborhoods and recreation centers in a magnanimous way, then that dictates to a public administrator that you have to find that connection to succeed."

Since his return to city government, DiBerardinis, a married father of four, says he's wiser and arguably calmer. He used to play basketball with his sons at his neighborhood rec center in Fishtown until he got stiff ankles and his activist wife, Joan Reilly, asked sardonically: "What are you doing?"

He now goes to the gym a few times a week, fly-fishes in Wissahickon Creek, and bird-watches.

Walking down the Ben Franklin Parkway near his Center City office one afternoon, DiBerardinis spotted a hermit thresh, a black-and-white warbler, and a woodcock. "It's a country bird," he said of one of the creatures. "What was it doing in the city, I don't know."

For him, the city's possibilities are endless.

"I love big ideas," said DiBerardinis. "And as long as we can move these ideas into reality, my ability to think about them is unlimited."

He has a mandate from his boss to plant 300,000 trees across the city by 2015, and add 500 new acres of park and recreational space to the landscape. He's working to launch a commission on literacy, add educational programs to Wissahickon Park, and build a park in South Philly.

At Cobbs Creek Park, a youth bike club is under way. And there's talk of a 5K run in the spring.

"There was a dormant period where no one cared about the park," said longtime Cobbs Creek resident Julia Chin. "Now it's even stronger than before. Now it's coming back together."