Mt. Airy neighbors pledge to help Houston’s playground stay open

Mt. Airy neighbors are scrambling to find a group of willing caretakers for Henry H. Houston Elementary’s playground. Many fear the decade-old structure will be taken down if the district can’t afford maintenance work.

The playground was built in 2002 after a contract was brokered between the School District of Philadelphia and Friends of Houston Playground, a neighborhood-based volunteer group. Most members had young children enrolled at Houston.

The contract, set to expire in February, stated that the Friends of Houston Playground were responsible for maintenance and any other costs associated with the playground’s upkeep. In exchange, the playground would be available to the community throughout the year.

If neighbors didn’t hold up their end of the deal, responsibility of the playground reverted back to the district, according to the contract.

Over the years, members of the Friends group have either moved or lost interest because their children have grown up. The playground, as a result, has seen better days.

Due to the district’s ongoing budget woes, however, Houston Principal Kim Newman has said she worries the district won’t be able to afford the playground and will remove it.

A trio of needs

On Thursday night, members of the Mt. Airy-Nippon-Bryan-Cresheim Town Watch met with WMAN executive director Marilyn Cohen to try to find a solution.

The playground needs three things: volunteers, security and funding, said Cohen.

Marie Cyr, one of the original members of the Friends, took on a lot of the playground’s caretaking responsibility in the past. She said the playground requires around $5,000 for annual repairs and payments to a community gatekeeper.

Several hours a week of administrative work are also part of the equation.

Philly Cares Day, said Cyr, used to funnel several volunteers into the playground to help with the work. But the city hasn’t held the volunteer day in two years.

Neighbors have complained about kids breaking into the playground and causing problems. According to neighbor Marilyn Lambert, a fire was set on the playground a couple months ago.

Cohen said she’s spoken with the 14th District, which includes the Mt. Airy, to increase police patrol to the area.

Newman has said she doesn’t think fundraising will be a problem if the school’s parents become involved again.Last month, in a meeting at Houston School, Meredith Haskins, president of the Home and School Association (HSA) president, said she’ll bring the issue to her board to gauge interest in volunteer work.

Outreach and education

But Cohen said the main problem remains: Who’s going to take responsibility?

“If the HSA and no new group of neighbors don’t want to take responsibility,” she said, “the playground will probably not be available for the community.”

Cyr added that stewardship should be shared between near neighbors and the larger community.

“The new group should have neighbors and near-neighbors involved and the Home and School Association in the committee too,” she said. “That way you have someone from the three parties involved.”

The town watch resolved Thursday night to launch an educational initiative around the playground to find someone to take responsibility.

“It’s been around for 10 years, people need to be educated,” said Beth Vogel, a near neighbor whose two children use the playground. “People take it for granted.”

Vogel noted that she will create educational fliers that ask interested parties to step forward.

In addition to education, Steve Stroiman, coordinator for the town watch group , said he plans on notifying other neighborhood watch groups to see if they can help get the word out.

Neighborhood watch members have set up an email account — houstonplayground@gmail.com — for those who wish to help with the project.

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