The heart of a North Philadelphia neighborhood beats its bad rep.
Inside, five rows of five chairs are lined up in neat rows. Bible quotes printed on white paper are taped to the wall.
Wanda Harris, the joyous director of the church’s praise dance group, throws the door open with a smile to beat the band. She says she’s seen the neighborhood change.
“This area used to be one of the worst, the most sinister,” she says, gesturing outside. “From my experience in Philadelphia—and I’ve been here a long time—it’s a big difference … I can really say that I have no problem coming down here at night. Like Thanksgiving, a lot of people came from outside the four-block area, that shows that we’re doing all right.”
Harris points out a brightly painted, heavily boarded building that sits diagonally across the street. As she peeks at the structure through the front-door window, she explains that her church is buying it and has plans to expand community services there.
All around Hunting Park these days—if you look in the right places—you can find people who are eyeballing the next project, next steps.
Thanks to the Conservancy, 2010’s steps will be huge. Soon, the baseball diamonds should be cleared out and ready for the second season of Aztecs’ baseball (the program started with football but includes a full cheerleading season for girls).
No one seems more excited about the revitalization project than Fisher and Irving, these coaches who have been working hard with what they’ve got, which, up until now, hasn’t included much money or resources.
They kicked off the baseball program last year. At first, only 40 kids—enough for two teams—signed up. Once kids noticed other kids practicing in the park, they dropped by and the coaches put down their names so they could personally remind them to register for this year. From word of mouth, the 2010 baseball program may have enough kids to make up seven teams.
In the tug-of-war over the park between residents and criminals, that’s a lot more bodies out in the park during the day than at night.
“Despite maybe not being in the best shape, [the park] still gets a lot of use when people come and want to get back and realize it can be a beautiful place when it’s used for the right things,” says Fisher.