The heart of a North Philadelphia neighborhood beats its bad rep.
In 2004, the team traveled to Florida on donated airfare and triumphantly won the National Liberty Youth Pop Warner League championship. To the rest of the world, it seemed like the underdog team burst out of nowhere.
After they won, Pop Warner’s website crowed: “For 11 years now, the North Philadelphia Pop Warner program has been in existence and participating in the Liberty Youth Pop Warner League, but many didn’t even know it existed. The team has practiced in the poverty-stricken area of Hunting Park, on a field that is incapable of even growing grass. They have managed to practice basically in the dark, with only lights from parking lots or the streets to help them.”
Though maintaining sufficient lighting is the obvious first step to maintaining safety in the park, it’s been one of the biggest challenges. Fisher worries about kids getting home safely after practice, which ends at 8 p.m.
“A lot of coaches stand by to watch, but it’d be so much easier if there was exhaustive lighting throughout the area,” he says.
“There’s always been problems with vandalizing,” explains Steve Irving. “Guys would come here with their handguns and shoot out the lights and then … it could be months before lights would be replaced.”
Fisher opens a closet door to reveal a computer. The screen shows images transmitted from 14 cameras set up outside. Leroy says the cameras, operating since July, were purchased with funds donated by Congressman Bob Brady.
Then Fisher points to three thick black laptops sitting neatly in a row on the tables. “This is all set up, too,” he says proudly, as he looks over the rec center’s first ad hoc computer lab. “We’re doing everything we can to keep the kids engaged.”
As the park goes, so goes the neighborhood, residents like to say. And they’re right. For one, there is a proven link between the health of urban parks and the communities surrounding them. Secondly, more 10-year-olds than people of any other age live in Hunting Park.
The surveillance screen shows tiny snapshots of the park’s landmarks: the yellow Smedley bandstand built in 1924, now tagged with graffiti; the boarded-up concession stand; a baseball field where a divot where the pitcher’s mound should be has filled with ice.
On the far edges of the park are relics the camera can’t see, like the Logan House. Boarded up and available for lease, the Georgian structure, named for William Penn’s secretary, operated as an inn until the city acquired the park in 1854. Throughout most of the 20th century, the site was the Fairmount Park Guard and police station.