South Philly: Budget Cuts Could Leave Playground “No Man’s Land”

sp0916southofsouthgroupenterprise8It’s a “no man’s land.” A dense slab of chocolate colored mulch piled waste high is the site of fictional uphill battles, a mock Mount Everest and the cushy “stone” half of a make-believe Sword and the Stone reenactment. To children of Queen Village and young visitors of Weccacoe Playground, the giant pile of mulch in the corner of the facility serves as a play area unique to the traditional equipment in other playgrounds of its kind. To adult Queen Village residents who don’t partake in the scaling escapades of Weccacoe’s mount-mulch, it signifies more work to be done with minimal resources. As a result of recent budget short falls in Philadelphia, the weight of keeping Queen Village parks and playgrounds clean and functional has been almost entirely placed on the shoulders of volunteers that call that neighborhood home.

“The city services we have had are through the Department of Recreation and have been limited almost exclusively to trash pick-up,” said Walt Lowthian, a member of the Queen Village Neighbors Association and resident who can view Weccacoe Playground at 400 Catherine street from his front door. “For the past three or four summers, they have provided a Seasonal Maintenance Assistant who works part-time at Weccacoe [Park], Mario Lanza Park and Beck Park cleaning the grounds, pulling trash to the curb, separating recyclables where practical, watering garden beds and some weeding,” he continued, detailing the city’s past and present involvement in keeping Queen Village trash free.

Yet, keeping a neighborhood clean comes at a steep price. In 2010, the City of Philadelphia comprehensively dedicated approximately $48 million to parks and recreation. However, the specific dollar amount towards Recreation that serves to benefit Queen Village Parks and others like it in the city of Philadelphia accounts for just $33,119,244 of that amount in the 2010 budget. In 2009 Philadelphia will spend an estimated 38,714,870, an amount that is $54,787 less than the budget for 2008, 38,769,657 but 5,595,626 more than what htey will receive in 2010.

This funding discrepancy comes despite the fact that in the 2009 Budget, three of the 13 Programmatic Investments asserted by the City of Philadelphia, involve initiatives to assist parks and playgrounds. Included in the budget are plans for “$7.5 million increase to the Department of Recreation over 5 years,” an “increase in Fairmount Park funding by $16.5 million over the next five years,” and “to provide $6.5 million to the Streets Department to fund weekly, single-stream, recycling to all Philadelphians.”

According to Mayor Nutter’s budget update Web site, the newly merged Department of Parks and Recreations, formerly the Department of Recreations and Fairmount Parks will continue to “provid[e] programming, high-quality facilities and open space” for Philadelphia’s mini explorers and adult park visitors alike.

“The Recreation Department determined that no center would close, preserving programming and community access and insuring that recreation centers would be available to the children who attend after-school programs.”

While the City of Philadelphia and reports on the update Web site continue to assure Philadelphians that “the preservation, protection and maintenance of the open space and street trees” will properly be maintained some Queen Village residents like Ed Bell feel it is not enough. Thus, it is up to the community to ensure the preservation of their own open spaces.

“The reason that [community involvement] has become important is because of city budget short falls,” Bell continued, “and they stopped doing mechanized cleaning.” He asserts that the parks in Queen Village aren’t receiving adequate funds from the City of Philadelphia and has turned his efforts towards empowering the community to improve the facilities and neighborhood streets. sp0916southofsouthgroupenterprise9

Included in the plan to keep the neighborhood clean and safe is the institution of street-cleaning days like April 18, where with the help of the city of Philadelphia, Bell and the Queen Village Neighbors Association were able to obtain “no parking” signs and some equipment to enable residents in Queen Village to clean their own streets.

“Last year they had trucks come in twice a month and they’re not doing that anymore,” said Bell. “We have to prevent the neighborhood from getting to the point where things are just terrible and no one can do anything about it.”

The Queen Village Town Watch has taken the extra step to not only act as the “eyes and ears” of the neighborhood for crime and criminal activity, but to do their part in keeping the community clean by reporting neighborhood vandalism of cars, buildings and their beloved parks.

“We have active patrols that go out two to three times a week at different times, different days of the week,” said Naomi Mendelson, founder and chairperson of Queen Village Town Watch. “We look for graffiti, broken car windows. We just basically keep our eyes out to see if there is anything suspicious a foot.”

“The playground is heavily used by pre-schools, parents with toddlers, school-age kids up to mid teens and tennis players of all ages,” Lowthian boasted about the functionality of Weccacoe Playground and its importance to the quality of life in Queen Village.

Members of the community have taken initiative to do something about vandalism and trash problems in the various parks in the neighborhood as well, Lowthian said.

“A few folks living near the park have, for various personal reasons, mostly out of a sense of wanting to contribute to the community, steadily or sporadically helped keep the playground clean, slowly expanded the gardening efforts, contributed to reducing rowdy or criminal behavior by taking various steps [like] calling 911, removing picnic tables and benches used for sex and sleeping, being involved in closing a drug house bordering the playground, removing graffiti.”

In the past the city has provided aid for broken and vandalized park equipment in Weccacoe Park, Mario Lanza and Beck Park. Lowthian hopes that aid in particular will continue regardless of the country’s current economic standing.

sp0916southofsouthgroupenterprise10“When requested, the [Department of Parks and Recreations] has also done repairs on playground equipment and kept the tall poll night lights operating,” Lowthain commented on city’s involvement. “Separately [Queen Village Neighborhood Association] leases the Weccacoe building from the city. The lease calls for QVNA to use its money for minor items and the city to maintain the basic structure. We can only hope that if major repairs are needed, the city will provide.”

While Lowthian, Bell and Mendelson are optimistic about the involvement of community members to keep Weccacoe Playground and Queen Village vibrant, Lowthian specifically mentioned that some repairs may need to be done to Weccacoe playground in the near future, including re-rubbering the playground surfaces.

“We have not discussed [the repairs] with the [Department of Parks and Recreations],” he said. “It seems probable that funding will have to come from somewhere else.”

Lowthian continued to discuss the long-term damage that comes with having a full-size professional tennis court and a recreation center in Weccacoe Park but acknowledges the untraditional benefits as well.

“The narrow space between the perimeter fence and the tennis court fence is used by little kids for exploring,” he said. “There is obviously something exciting about going over the mulch pile and through this no man’s land.”

For now, the unkempt mount-mulch may remain a pretender’s delight and presumed explorers terrain, as Lowthian jokes. Residents of Queen Village and members of the Queen Village Neighbors Association are determined that despite city budget cuts they’ll never let Weccacoe Playground itself, become a “no man’s land.”


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