The heart of a North Philadelphia neighborhood beats its bad rep.
“It just swept through,” he says. “It just seemed like overnight you heard about unfortunate incidents in the park, and it wasn’t the place where you felt like you did as a child.”
As Fisher talks about how the drug ripped through the park and neighborhood like a tornado, Taylor looks on, nodding.
“Right,” recalls Taylor. “Because you were a teenager when I was trying to keep you from coming back up here.”
“You could just see the change really quickly. Kids that you played football with in the park with were now involved with things not suitable for our age,” says Fisher.
One block east of the park is the corner of Eighth and Butler. Part of an area christened the Badlands by ex-Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez, the area gained notoriety as one of the most dangerous open-air drug markets in the city. To the west, a menacing pageant of prostitutes, pimps and assorted street hustlers lined up and down Old York Road. With both sides of the park essentially barricaded, circulation between law-abiding residents and the park was cut off.
Irving, who grew up near 11th and Erie, remembers when he wasn’t allowed to walk to the park anymore.
“I used to come here for baseball practice and I’d come to the playground,” he says. “When the drugs and things like that moved into the area … that activity cut off our access to come into the park without someone actually bringing you here.”
By the late ’80s, the park was all but lost to hard-working members of the community. But soon community activist groups sprung up out of the negativity, says Taylor.
“We started pushing to get the prostitutes off the streets and we got groups together cleaning up around the area, and a town watch,” says Taylor, who is a member of the Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAC).
In 1993, Fisher co-founded the North Philadelphia Aztecs with friends he came up with in the neighborhood. The story of the Aztecs is so heart-warmingly against the odds and triumph-of-the-human-spirit, it’s already essential to Philadelphia lore.