Rec centers have helped generations of Philadelphians grow up. Though their numbers are declining and their funding is drying up, these old-school institutions remain vital to the communities they serve.
Photographs by Jeff Fusco
It's the middle of a sticky summer day, the third in the city's latest heat wave. Most of the neighborhoods are dead, except for a patch of land known as the recreation center.
There's the steady beat of a basketball bouncing on concrete. Guys in sweat-soaked wifebeaters and baggy shorts sprinting up and down the court. Soon the ball sails through the air and slams through the net, narrowing the game.
Nearby, the fresh-cut grass around an empty baseball diamond burns in the heat. On the other side of a mangled fence children fly through the air on swings while others dance around the jungle gym. Girls play double-dutch in the shade. But on this humid day most of the serious play is at the pool, where children's squeals are punctuated by a lifeguard's whistle.
For generations of Philadelphians, rec centers have been a community haven. The city's urban recreation movement started in the early 20th century, mostly with summer sports activities for idle boys. By the '50s programs had expanded to serve the entire community-girls, their parents and grandparents, the physically and mentally challenged, and the city's diverse ethnic groups-year round.
The rec center evolved into a place for neighborhood kids to simply have fun-to create arts and crafts, learn karate and gymnastics, and cheer their summer-league basketball team to a championship. They became a place to build confidence, pride and self-esteem. A place where identities are carved, friendships sealed and neighbors united. Most important, they became a place where children could be safe amid a hostile environment of shrinking education budgets and rising juvenile crime.
Last year, in order to close a projected $227 million budget gap, the city threatened to close, sell or transfer 20 of its 82 pools and 33 of its 162 rec centers. When neighbors rallied and politicians reacted, the centers were saved-at least for now.
While some city rec centers offer seemingly everything-dance, art, gymnastics, karate, music, plays, talent shows, tennis, boxing, soccer, T-ball, baseball, basketball, swimming and strong community support-others are barely holding on.
Inside, past walls of student artwork and dusty display cases filled with photographs of smiling young faces and gold-plated trophies, the buildings are old and worn, with broken pipes, leaky ceilings, cracked floors and peeling paint.
In some of the centers there's no warmth in the winter or air-conditioned relief in the summer. Outside, guys sit on benches and drink from brown paper bags. At some, the ground is littered with empty nickel bags of weed; a few hold some residual white powder.
Many of the rec centers are empty, held together by a lone employee and a handful of dedicated volunteers. Many are short on everything-mostly money. Gone are the once-free programs and activities. Even the pools are no more.
Yet the kids still come. For some, the rec centers are a second home. Kids start the day with breakfast, then come arts and crafts, and perhaps a music lesson. After lunch they line up and file outside to play on the swings, ride on the sliding board or jump in the pool. Some just hang out and talk under the trees because, for better or worse, the neighborhood recreation centers are still theirs.
Ramonita Negron Rivera Recreation Center
Location: Fifth and Allegheny, near the Golden Block in North Philadelphia. Shares a corner with a colorful water ice stand.
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