The heart of a North Philadelphia neighborhood beats its bad rep.
On a recent late December afternoon, as winter’s first truly bone-chilling winds whip, the park’s fields are deserted and its pool empty except for leaves. Bordered by Old York Road, Roosevelt Boulevard, Ninth Street and Lycoming Street, the park’s a yawning expanse of open space and trees in a neighborhood of tight rowhomes and three-story mansions carved into apartments. A recreation center sits in the middle of a circle that sprouts curvilinear walking paths.
Inside the recreation center’s gymnasium, a crew of about 10 teenagers breaks a sweat practicing on the basketball court. The floor feels like it’s been pounded down to the concrete. In a room next door, three younger boys hang out. The trio are sons of 39-year-old Leroy Fisher and 38-year-old Steve Irving, two neighborhood buddies who helped co-found and coach for the North Philadelphia Aztecs, an after-school sports program that is one of the most well-known and respected community groups in the area. The teams use the park for practice.
The Irving boys, 11-year-old Steve and 9-year-old Samir, are balancing on Rip-Stiks, those newfangled two-wheel skateboards, circling the room like stir-crazy goldfish. Fisher’s son, 14-year-old Joseph, watches as the brothers mess around, crashing and laughing.
Even though all three boys come here to play sports, it’s just not the same park that Joann Taylor, Leroy’s mom and Joseph’s grandmother, remembers.
Taylor, an attractive woman who looks much younger than her 68 years, smiles as she recalls family reunions in the park in the 1960s. She talks of bright afternoons full of ice tubs stocked with cold lemonade, and of volleyball, baseball and swimming—Hunting Park boasts a giant public pool, built on a spot that used to be a miniature man-made lake, complete with a little bridge.
“We had to have the park because we couldn’t afford to rent halls and stuff, families being so large. The park was one of the best places to go,” she says. Taylor, who used to travel from 25th and Dauphin to use the park, liked the area so much she moved into the neighborhood in 1970, when Leroy was 1 month old.
“It was nice. You could come out in the summertime in the evening and walk through,” she says. She brought Leroy to the park as a baby and young boy. Then everything changed and the park wasn’t a place for honest, decent people anymore. Taylor, Fisher and Irving recall that the ruination felt sudden, practically overnight.
“Without question,” says Fisher, “1984 and ’85 was when it took place.”
Fisher, an upbeat guy whose bearlike physique backs up his professed love for football, speaks cautiously and sometimes euphemistically when talking about problems he’s seen in the park. He shakes his head as he describes what happened to the park and neighborhood once crack hit the streets and infested its corners.
Like everywhere else it arrived, crack was instant karma. In this neighborhood, the bad company it brought with it gravitated toward the edges of the park.