In one of Philly’s hottest areas, neighbors are crowdfunding air conditioners

Many blocks in North Philadelphia are not lined with trees and many residents do not have home air conditioning

Many blocks in North Philadelphia are not lined with trees and many residents do not have home air conditioning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Priscilla Johnson, 62, says when the mercury exceeds 90 degrees in Philadelphia’s Hunting Park neighborhood, it can feel as if the ground is blasting heat from below. A five-block walk to the bus stop can make Johnson feel like she’s about to faint.

“Every summer is hotter,” she said, sitting in front of her air conditioner during the city’s first heat emergency of the year. “This summer is another hot one.”

Johnson’s saving grace at home this year is her air conditioner — a donation from the Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee.

The committee is now trying to crowdsource $4,000 that will go to buying 100 air conditioners and 50 fans for Hunting Park residents most vulnerable to heat.

Hunting Park is a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood with fewer trees and more exposed asphalt than other Philly communities. In large part, the neighborhood looks this way because of redlining practices that paved the way for disinvestment. The result is Hunting Park has surface temperatures up to 22 degrees higher than other communities.

In 2018, the city launched its “Beat the Heat” plan for Hunting Park with the help of residents. The plan emphasized the need to create a network of cooling centers, but when congregating became impossible because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city and other nonprofits focused their efforts on bringing cooling devices directly to residents in need.

The organizations have learned that people like Johnson prefer to stay cool at home instead of having to venture out to another location.

“It’s so hot out there that it just sucks up the air when you even go out there to take the trash out or bring the trash can in, the heat just sucks you up,” said Johnson. “I don’t even go outside in this type of weather.”

Meeting the demand for cooling units has been a challenge of its own, however, even with several organizations pitching in to help raise funds and apply for grants. Money remains limited, and Cheyenne Flores, with the city’s Office of Sustainability, said the need outstripped the supply of 100 fans and 25 air conditioners available last summer.

With its GoFundMe campaign, the Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee wants to distribute as many cooling devices as possible in as short a time frame.

Flores said the pandemic’s health outcomes might have put heat disparities at the back of people’s minds. But with virus cases down and heat waves moving through the United States, residents and organizations are once again coordinating with a sense of urgency.

“Perhaps it has increased a bit this summer,” she said, “as we’re seeing extreme heat affecting the West Coast and the Midwest … and pretty much waiting for the other shoe to drop, to hit us even worse than what we’re experiencing right now in this heat wave.”

Giving away cooling units is not enough to fight heat inequities, said Flores. As community events resume, partners will give out “cool kits” that include sunscreen, electrolyte tablets, hand sanitizer, and information on utility assistance programs.

The city, the Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee, and other partners are also reaching out to people who already have units but may need help connecting to resources like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

On Wednesday, members of the committee will be doing a door-to-door check on neighbors between 2 and 4 p.m.

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