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Fighting for Kingsessing

Residents feel frustrated in making rec center safer.

A memorial to Leon Blackwell , 19, who was shot and killed April 12, 2007, is set up at Kingsessing Recreation Center. Residents want the city to do more to make the park safe. Police say they lack enough resources.
A memorial to Leon Blackwell , 19, who was shot and killed April 12, 2007, is set up at Kingsessing Recreation Center. Residents want the city to do more to make the park safe. Police say they lack enough resources.Read more

Look around the Kingsessing Recreation Center and you can see the signs of an increasingly diverse neighborhood on the upswing.

While young blacks play basketball, young whites play softball. The sprawling grounds of the center and the sidewalks surrounding it are lined with 150 new trees. A colorful new playground is abuzz with children on sunny afternoons.

Take a closer look and it becomes clear that the neighborhood still suffers from crime and blight. Teens openly smoke marijuana on the picnic tables next to the playground. Drug paraphernalia is strewn about the grass and weeds. On the pavement, broken glass from 40-ounce beer bottles crunch underfoot. Packs of delinquents menace visitors and one another.

The ominous side of the recreation center exposed itself in a deadly way on April 12, when a 19-year-old was shot three times in a brazen afternoon attack near the picnic tables and playgrounds. Police say a 16-year-old shot Leon Blackwell over a dispute about a small amount of marijuana. Blackwell died two days later.

While city officials say they are doing all they can to make the Kingsessing Recreation Center safe, some residents disagree.

"I think what happened to Mr. Blackwell could have been prevented if there was an authority presence at the rec center," said Brendan Skwire, 36, who lives across the street from where the shooting occurred.

"There's not adequate patrols in the playground," said Carrolyn Morgan, 65, who also lives across the street from the recreation center, which is at 50th Street and Kingsessing Avenue.

"I don't know why there's not an increased police presence," she said.

Ann Cayle, 42, and Michelle Robinson, 39, have been complaining about problems at the recreation center for months. Their concerns have gone unheeded, they say.

Three days before Blackwell's shooting, Cayle and Robinson met with Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson's chief of staff to raise concerns about drugs and crime at the recreation center and the surrounding neighborhood.

Cayle and Robinson argued for a Police Athletic League officer to be assigned to the recreation center.

The day after the shooting, a frustrated Cayle called Victor Richard, the recreation commissioner, at his home. She had tried repeatedly to talk to him at his office and was, she said, ignored and rebuffed. Richard, in an interview, acknowledged the call to his house.

Cayle then e-mailed Kimberly Byrd, Johnson's chief of staff, to say she finally spoke to Richard and wrote that "yesterday's shooting should never have happened."

Byrd replied: "I will contact Victor and get back to you. Which shooting are you referring to?"

Since then, Cayle said, neither Byrd nor Richard nor any of their representatives have contacted her.

Richard said he referred the matter to his staff.

"All I merely did was listen," Richard said, adding that "I'm not a micro-manager."

(Late yesterday, Richard agreed to meet with Cayle.)

Byrd referred an Inquirer e-mail request for comment to police spokesman Capt. Benjamin Naish, who said Byrd did not tell him if she had any plans to respond further to Cayle.

A month before Blackwell was shot, the Police Department announced it would add police in the 12th District, which includes the recreation center and is known as one of the most dangerous in the city.

But Naish said the police cannot afford a permanent presence at the recreation center.

"We just don't have the resources to provide that type of service," he said.

Besides the crime and drug problems, the gradual racial integration of the neighborhood has generated some friction.

Cayle, a lawyer, and Robinson, an architect - who are both white - have tried to be active with the Kingsessing Recreation Center Advisory Council.

Robinson was responsible for getting the 150 new trees and their planting a year ago. It was a massive effort that involved hundreds of volunteers. Those trees would not have been planted without the advisory council's consent.

But by the end of the year, the pair's relationship with the council began to deteriorate.

In a Dec. 2, 2006, letter to Mary Platt-Coles, deputy commissioner of recreation, Cayle wrote: "The council president has refused to place discussion of expanding programming at the rec. center, discussion of drug use and violence at the rec. center, and discussion of developing a police presence (e.g. through a PAL program) on the meeting's agenda."

Cayle added, "The center director, Lonnie Cohen, has been notified several times in the past few months of incidences of violence, drug use, and gun possessions that have occurred at the center, and he refuses to request police assistance or to report the behavior."

The council president, Tom Henry, did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview and a phone message left at his home. Cohen also did not reply to requests for an interview.

Richard said he was unaware of any concern about the recreation center leadership until Cayle called him at home.

He praised the council and said the recreation center had improved greatly in the last several years thanks to nearly $2 million in improvements.

"We intentionally picked that neighborhood four or five years ago because of the crime statistics for juveniles and the crime statistics in general," Richard said.

As of April 8, the number of murders in that police district, the 12th, was 13 - more than twice the number for the same period last year.

Kingsessing Meeting

The Kingsessing Recreation Center Advisory Council will hold its regular monthly meeting tonight, and activist Ann Cayle plans to be there to raise public-safety issues. Residents and neighbors are welcome. The meeting is scheduled for 7 in the center's main building, 50th Street and Kingsessing Avenue.