At the same time Medford’s Brenden Aaronson and Downingtown’s Zack Steffen were playing for the U.S. men’s national team in Jamaica, a few dozen youth soccer players with their own big dreams gathered in South Philadelphia to help break ground on a major renovation of the Capitolo Playground at 9th and Federal Streets.
Funded by the city’s Rebuild program, the Union’s charitable foundation, and Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer, the renovation will bring a new grass mini-pitch and upgrades on the main grass field that will yield two soccer pitches and a softball diamond. There will also be new bleachers along the fields, a new seating area adjacent to Passyunk Avenue, and a new ADA-accessible entrance at 10th and Wharton Streets.
The Capitolo site has special resonance in the city’s soccer community. It’s across the street from Pat’s and Geno’s, two city landmarks, but it’s also part of an Italian Market neighborhood that isn’t so Italian anymore.
There are as many taquerias as pasta and meat vendors on 9th Street nowadays, including one of Union manager Jim Curtin’s favorite places to go for brunch from his home in nearby Queen Village. Every block has stores selling quinceañera dresses for 15-year-old girls’ birthday celebrations, or soccer jerseys from teams across Mexico, Europe and (occasionally) the United States.
And on weekend mornings throughout the year, you’ll hear just as much Spanish as English spoken as kids play on Capitolo’s field.
“Parks and public space, sports like soccer, this is their great power: to connect us as Philadelphians, as humans, as citizens,” Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said after a ceremony whose dignitaries included Mayor Kenney.
“There’s something really unique about the sport of soccer in terms of its global reach, and I think what Philadelphia has become — you saw this with the most recent census data − is that we’re an incredibly diverse city,” Ott Lovell said. “People coming here from other countries, this is their sport, and so it’s only fitting that it become our sport as Philadelphians, too.”
Hayes Hunt, chair of the Union Foundation’s board, said the team is all in on helping developments like this happen. The foundation and Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer have already committed over $1 million to help the Rebuild program build 15 mini-pitches and two new full-size fields across the city.
“The ownership of the Union, the leadership and the players all wanted to see this happen here,” he said. “Putting this in Capitolo, in predominantly a Mexican-American neighborhood, for safe places to play for those kids and families was very, very important to the Foundation, to the team, and frankly to the city.”
Robin Hernandez Mekonnen, a founder of Capitolo Youth Soccer 14 years ago and now one of its vice-presidents, said the campaign to get the playground upgraded dovetailed with the local Mexican immigrant community’s campaign for acceptance.
“It wasn’t always a feeling of welcomeness in this neighborhood,” she said. “And we struggled, and we pushed back, and we just continued to show up, we continued to clean the park and be present and do our part to maintain the park, and really just establish that we were here and we’re going to be part of keeping this neighborhood safe and clean and building the children’s futures together. Now that we have established a strong community, strong network, strong social capital, it’s a pretty incredible accomplishment.”