A winter festival is coming to McPherson Square. It’s part of a months-long effort to ‘reclaim space’ in Kensington

A winter festival and toy drive are coming to Kensington’s McPherson Square. The events are part of a collaboration between the city and residents to make the park safer.

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A fence displays the words

New signage installed over the summer of 2022 aims to signal that the McPherson Square playground is play space for children. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The playground at McPherson Square in Kensington has a black chain fence around it and is covered with bright, colorful cutouts of flowers, music notes, footballs, and doodles.

It’s clean and quiet, but the park hasn’t always looked like this.

Earlier this year, the city’s Parks & Recreation department began working with city agencies, community organizations, and residents on making the park safer and more accessible to families who live in the area.

An open field is visible inside of a fence.
McPherson Square in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood has made efforts to bring the community back to the park. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“This has been a very encouraging year,” said resident Bryan Belknap, who works at the Free Library’s McPherson branch located at the park. “If you go back to the pandemic during the time when everyone was staying at home, the park was really, really, rough and the fence wasn’t here and the playground was sort of overrun and no one felt that it was safe.”

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The installation of the fence last year in combination with the decorations put up this summer, and the consistent clean-ups have made a difference, Belknap said.

“We haven’t really had any problems, which again, is just a huge change from where we were,” he said, referring to when adults using drugs would hang out in the playground.

“Everyone sort of now knows that this is a place for children.”

This work has been percolating for months and is the result of conversations that the city has been facilitating with Kensington residents.

Revamping the playground area at McPherson is one part of a larger strategy led by the city to address their concerns about parks in the neighborhood, including Harrowgate Park, Hissey Park, and Hope Park.

“It was obvious from the very beginning of those conversations that activating and reclaiming public spaces in Kensington was at the top of the stakeholders’ and the community leaders’ concerns,” said Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.

A library building is lit up at night in a park.
New lights at McPherson Square in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood aims to deter drug use around the library. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In partnership with IMPACT Services, the Philadelphia Police Department, New Kensington Community Development Corporation, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP), the Center for Employment Opportunities, and many other organizations, the city has organized cleanups at parks, offered meals, and created programming for families and children in the area.

During the summer, the city hosted what they called PlayParks — fun and educational activities, five days a week, inspired by the city’s PlayStreets program. Then there was a Halloween parade and a fall festival.

Children sit on a tractor trailer bed for a hay ride in a park.
Children and community members participate in a hay ride at the fall festival in McPherson Square on Oct. 29, 22. (Courtesy of the City of Philadelphia)

While there’s still trepidation in the community, neighbors are showing up for the events. Over 350 residents showed up to the fall fest.

“We’re definitely seeing a resurgence in people using the parks positively,” said Ott Lovell. “When you push positive activity in, it helps to push negative activity out, but you have to remain consistent.”

Thus far, the parks department has spent $90,000 in donations from the William Penn Foundation and Knight Foundation to support programming throughout the past few months. An additional $548,905 has gone toward operation crews and equipment for maintenance at and around Kensington parks and public spaces.

Even with all this work, the problems at the park persist, says Commissioner Ott Lovell — there are still real challenges around substance use, homelessness, and public safety.

Despite the reality of the daily happenings at the park, it’s progress.

People sit on benches in a park.
McPherson Square has long been know as an epicenter of the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘More positive things are occurring’

Theresa Grone has lived her entire life in Kensington. She’s a block captain, a caretaker to her elderly parents, a mom to seven kids, and what she calls a “community connector.”

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“I was born and raised in this neighborhood,” Grone said. “A lot of the children know me. A lot of the families around here know me. I’m like a resource person, a go-to person.”

A woman stands in a library.
Theresa Grone, a mom of 7, is passionate about bringing the Kensington community together despite challenges in the neighborhood. She often does outreach to get families to events at the McPherson Square library. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Grone has spent a lot of her life volunteering in Kensington — helping out with her kids’ Head Start program, participating on parent councils, contributing to neighborhood clean-ups, and more.

For her and her family, McPherson Square and Library are a pillar of the community and the recent changes have not gone unnoticed.

“It’s progressing. More positive things are occurring … it’s just a slow process,” said Grone. “Could it improve more? Yes, it could. We just got to have the right support behind us,” she said.

Books and photos are displayed on library shelves.
Bryan Belknap, a LEAP Youth Advocate, works with children’s interest, like making elaborate crafts out of cardboard, at the McPherson Square Library in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Grone works for IMPACT Services to promote community events at the park and library. She wants people in the neighborhood to participate, to come out and give the events a chance, but it’s a hard sell sometimes.

“When I hand out the flyers, they’re like, ‘Oh, is that the park over there? No,’” Grone said. And then she tries to make the pitch to them that things have changed, the park has gotten slightly better, the event will be fun. Sometimes people show up, sometimes they don’t — Grone understands why. But she continues to try.

“I just would love to see more of what we’ve been seeing lately, which is more families, more children,” Grone said.

A group of people and kids stands in a library.
Kensington residents at McPherson Library: (From left) Evelyn, Traey and 5 month-old Emory, Noel and his 4-month-old Naomi, Theresa Gone and 7 month-old Gianni; Gone’s children Jo-Lissa, 6, Jozephinea, 4, Antonio, 11, and Josiah, 5. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

She wishes for McPherson and Kensington to look like it did when she was growing up, when families looked out for each other, and she could sled down a hill in the wintertime without having to worry about needles. She wants more police presence and people to receive housing and rehabilitation. She wants the library to be updated and upgraded.

“I just hope and pray that it comes and it comes pretty fast. So that way, we can be where we need to be at: in a safe environment,” Grone said.

Until then, Grone will continue to show up in whatever way she can to move her neighborhood forward.

Two women pose with two children. A library is visible behind them.
Theresa Grone said McPherson Library staff members like Bernadette Gilmore are like family to her and her seven children. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘We’ve made progress … we want to maintain’

The physical park at McPherson has been changed in small but meaningful ways these past few months and the evolution is happening at the library as well.

Bryan Belknap, the Learning Enrichment Afterschool Program (LEAP) youth advocate at the McPherson branch, has had to adapt programming to what kids in the neighborhood need. It’s complimentary work to what’s happening in the park.

“People’s perceptions of the park are changing,” said Belknap. “I’m now seeing positive mental health things that I think are part of that effort.”

Belknap manages the after-school program and has worked diligently with other employees to make it a space where kids can feel safe and have fun. He works with dozens of students every day. Student participation after school is steadily increasing to what it used to be pre-pandemic, and students are excited to be there and participate in activities like candle-making, jewelry making, and LEGO robotics.

“The police have said that some of the worst corners in Philadelphia are just blocks from the library,” Belknap said. “So in this little area, this park and this library are safe spaces.”

A man holds a wooden construction. Library shelves are visible behind him.
Bryan Belknap, a LEAP Youth Advocate, works with children’s interest, like making elaborate crafts out of cardboard, at the McPherson Square Library in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Belknap is committed to keeping the efforts moving forward.

“We’ve made progress and we want to keep expanding that out,” he said. “We don’t want to lose all of the gains and then try and restart … we want to maintain.”

The work in Kensington parks and public spaces will continue.

As part of its programming in Kensington, Parks & Recreation will host a winter festival on Saturday, Dec. 17. It’s a way to bring holiday fun to the neighborhood and celebrate the work that the community has done thus far. The city is collecting toys and winter clothing for families.

Donations can be dropped off at the following municipal buildings:

  • City Hall, 1 South Penn Sq.
  • One Parkway Building, 1515 Arch St.
  • Municipal Services Building, 1401 JFK Blvd.

Kensington resident Grone hopes that people will give what they can.

“We need support behind us, so that way we can give these kids Christmas,” she said.

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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