A photographer reflects on a summer oasis: Dendy Playground

Dendy feels like magic. That’s the thought that ran through my mind the first time I went to my neighborhood rec center for a swim one June evening.

Golden light washed over the crowded pool, a tight ship run by “Ms. Joanne,” as Dendy Playground pool maintenance associate Joanne Williams-Campbell is known. (She has strict rules: no towels or shoes on the pool deck; all swimmers must shower before and after going into the water.) The water ice truck parked at the curb blared Christmas tunes while the line of antsy kids only got longer. Kids on bikes popped wheelies as they criss-crossed the basketball courts during breaks in summer-league contests. Conversations, children’s games, and SEPTA trains roaring past overhead joined birdsong in the air. The bright blue sky slowly turned orange, then faded to navy.

This is how every summer night at Dendy is, I found out. Taking up the entire block at 10th and Oxford Streets in North Philadelphia, the playground is the center of the community.

I never expected to photograph it when I first went there. Marie Dendy Playground was just the closest pool to me as I stayed the summer alone in my apartment near the Temple campus, and I was set on getting in the water. I’d been eyeing the pool since I went to Dendy to cast my vote in my first presidential election in 2016, and now the time had come. Swimming was supposed to be a break after spending my days interning with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s photo staff. But the feeling that night was impossible to ignore; the magic was palpable, and I knew I had to document it. (Click on the arrows to view the full slideshows here.)

Dendy is a summer oasis, offering a chance to cool down from the heat in a Philly neighborhood that’s hotter than average, plus affordable recreation for an area where median income ranges from $20,000 to $28,000. It’s also a hub of neighborhood life, with cookouts, basketball tournaments, and summer camp.

It soon became my oasis, too, with a regular cast of smiling basketball players and toddlers and parents and everyone else, who soon came to know me (fondly, I hope) as “the Camera Lady.”

I was usually the only Temple student around. Once, there were two Temple students playing basketball, and twice I brought a friend with me, but other than that the rec center was primarily neighborhood residents or people who had grown up there and since moved to other parts of the city. I felt very welcome from the start, especially once a couple kids latched onto me and my cameras. I spent as many evenings as I could (and some mornings) sitting on the wooden bleachers, talking to and photographing my neighbors.

I’ve shared some of the more than 1,300 images I made with community members via Instagram DM, the hashtag #dendysummer, 4-by-6-inch prints, and waterproofed 13-by-9-inch prints hung up at the playground so people can see themselves in their space.

As my lease comes to a close, so does my time at Dendy, but I rest assured the magic will always be there.

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