100 extremely hot Philly blocks are getting super soakers and other toys to beat the heat

Philadelphia is expanding its Playstreets program to help cool the city’s hottest neighborhoods.

Taylor Corbin, 4, (center) helps block captain Roslyn Myers inflate a hopper ball

Taylor Corbin, 4, (center) helps block captain Roslyn Myers inflate a hopper ball for a Playstreets event in the 5800 block of Delancey Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Roslyn Myers lives on a treeless block in one of the hottest areas of the city — Cobbs Creek. Her block is one of many in the West Philadelphia neighborhood with no trees. So on a hot day like Monday, with a high of 89 degrees, there’s no escape from the heat.

For years, Myers, who is 58 and has two grown kids, has voluntarily taken over the job of keeping the children in her block cool and entertained through the city’s Playstreets program. Every weekday, at 9 a.m., she fills three to five inflatable pools in front of her house. And says she spends at least $50 a week out of her pocket in water balloons, water guns, and water ice for nearly 30 kids from the area.

“My water bill is extremely high! My water runs all day, five days a week,” said Myers laughing. “I open a hose, fill the pools, I do the water balloons.”

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With public pools closed this season because of budget cuts related to the coronavirus pandemic and rec centers running limited programming, Myers is on the front lines in a battle against a looming public health crisis: deadly heat. But starting this week, she has a new set of tools in her arsenal, thanks to a $600,000 expansion of the 60-year federally funded Playstreets program.

Meelah Bridges, 3, cools off in a kiddie pool watched over by her mother, Mahja Foster, during a Playstreets event in the 5800 block of Delancey Street, Monday, July 13, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Cooling kits for cooler Playstreets

Early in May, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ott Lovell already knew this year was going to be a difficult one. She had to cut 20% of her office budget, close the city’s 74 public pools, 152 rec centers and reduce other summer programs to make up for the $649 million city budget gap caused by the pandemic.

With summers getting hotter every summer in Philly, and a pandemic, “we just knew, early on, that we would need to come up with another solution,” Ott Lovell said.

That solution is an enhanced version of Playstreets. Ott Lovell raised private funds herself to transform them into a mobile version of a summer camp, with toys and structures to keep kids entertained and cool.

“We raised $600,000 in six weeks, so it was a significant effort,” she said.

Playstreets works as an extension of the federal free lunch program designed to provide meals to kids during the summer. But this year, one-third of the blocks in the program — 100 out of 310 — will receive tents and patio umbrellas, misting fans, super soakers, a water jug, water balloons and neck cooling rags.  Out of the 100 blocks selected to be part of the program,  50 will be “super streets” with more activities, such as mural-making with Mural Arts Philadelphia and parties with DJs along with members of Philly’s sport teams and their mascots.

With pools closed because of COVID-19, Playstreets is trying to incorporate cooling off strategies into its program, which closes streets to create safe places for kids to play and distributes healthy meals and snacks when school is out. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Super streets also get special mobile furniture, such as large colorful plastic structures that can be used to form shapes, designed by LA’s Kounkuey Design Initiative, and customized seesaws and modular play islands designed by the local design firm Tiny WPA.

Some blocks will also receive a learning and literacy program which includes visits and activities from the Free Library of Philadelphia, Fab Youth Philly and its Play Captains, as well as officers from the Police Athletic League.

Myers block is one of the super streets It was chosen because of the needs on the block and the extreme heat — her block is one of a number in the city where a lack of shade along with other factors mean that temperatures can climb up to 22 degrees Fahrenheit higher than other leafier areas of the city, according to city data.

“The blocks who are getting the cooling kits were blocks that we identified using the city’s heat vulnerability map,” Lovell said.

Philadelphia’s Playstreets is incorporating water toys into its program to help kids cool off while city pools are closed because of COVID-19. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Yet that map wasn’t used to determine where Philadelphia built its spraygrounds — fun additions to the city’s playgrounds that have proven essential to summer in the city. The city opened 91 spraygrounds last week and another three are slated to open later in the season — two in Northeast Philadelphia and one in South Philly. Ott Lovell said that the infrastructure takes years to build and happened as a result of City Council advocacy and other factors, not the city’s data on heat disparities.

“Those are projects that take years to plan and are based on our capital program,” Parks and Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said. “They’re not projects that we identified through the heat vulnerability initiative.”

The closest sprayground to Myers’ block is almost two miles away, in the Francis J. Myers Recreation Center. And most spraygrounds are currently closed to the public during the mornings, because they’re being used by summer camps taking place at rec centers.

But the call of the sprayground is powerful. Last week, Myers and another mother from the block gathered the kids and took them to the sprayground in Dilworth Park.

“We take the kids on a bus and take them down to City Hall and do the water down there,” she said. “There’s nothing available right here that I pretty much trust my children to be at.”

Volunteer Keturah Bailey hands out freeze pops at a Playstreets event in the 5800 block of Delancey Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

‘It will definitely help’

Mahja Foster lives seven blocks away from Myers’ block in West Philly, but brings her 3-year-old daughter to Myers’ Playstreet and pools every day.

“She’s been doing this since the summer started really, just being able to swim every day, that’s what she enjoys,” Foster said.

Foster said she’s OK with public pools being closed this summer because she wouldn’t feel safe taking her daughter to public spaces during the pandemic. Playstreets have a more controlled environment, she said. But she laments that her neighborhood doesn’t have the same access to green spaces and safe parks that richer areas of the city have.

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“Do I wish that there was a Dilworth Park in West Philly? Absolutely. There needs to be the same amount of resources, the same access to staying cool without parents having to come out of their pocket,” she said. “The city of Philadelphia could do way more.”

Myers, who’s been running a Playstreet on her block for two years, said she’s not sure how much the cooling kits will help to keep the kids cool. On extremely hot days, water guns and balloons don’t do much. But she said at least she’ll be saving by not having to get super soakers and balloons out of her pocket.

“It will definitely help,” she said. “My children are water kids, they love the water.”

But Kiara Payne, a 27-year-old mother of three kids — ages 2, 3 and 8 — said having her block be a Playstreet definitely helps.

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“It gives the kids free time. They don’t have to worry about any cars coming by, they can play football… Versus the street not being blocked out, and them having to watch for the cars,” she said.

As for helping kids cool off, she’s not so sure.

“But you know, kids enjoy being outside, so…” she said.

The revamped version of Playstreets is a partnership of the Parks and Rec department with the Greater Philadelphia YMCA, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the William Penn Foundation, and the van Ameringen Foundation.

Disclosure: The Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation provide grant funding to PlanPhilly.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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