Councilwoman Bass, Rep. Kinsey assess ’emergency situation’ at Morris Estate

Morris Estate, a recreation center in West Oak Lane, has seen better days.

The roof and gutter system of the former mansion on East Chelten Avenue are falling apart and parts of the building’s facade have crumbled away.

The entire basement and several rooms inside are also in disrepair. Flooding during rainstorms is partly to blame.

It’s a sad sight for Ray Jackson, who’s lived in the neighborhood for more than 40 years. He’s lead the center’s advisory council for nearly half of them.

“This place used to be phenomenal,” he said.

On Tuesday morning, Jackson and five of his fellow council members met at Morris to show city and state officials the current state of the center. The facility’s council hopes that some funds can be allocated to upgrades.

Eighth District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, state Rep. Stephen Kinsey, and Susan Slawson, the city’s recreation commissioner, were among those in attendance.

Fighting negative perceptions 

As the group toured the building, Jackson said Morris suffered when residents began using nearby recreation centers instead.

He and other council members attribute much of that drop-off to a lingering perception that the center is a dangerous place.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Morris was overrun with gang activity and remains a place that neighbors – new and old – associate with danger, council members said.

“It’s word of mouth,” said Adeline Behlin, who’s lived in the neighborhood even longer than Morris.

The neighborhood, like most in the city, still struggles with crime – a fresh teddy bear memorial sat just up the street from Morris. But council members said it’s not as bad as the stigma that some residents still cling to.

Council members said fixing up Morris’ exterior, in particular, would go a long way in letting residents know that the center is a safe haven.

“The reputation and the exterior sort of joined at a point,” said Jackson.

Anticipating progress in stages 

Calling Morris an “emergency situation,” Bass – who chairs Council’s Committee on Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs – said she plans on using some of her office’s capital dollars that are allocated for recreation centers to help with upgrades. 

Her total budget for all recreation centers in her Northwest Philadelphia district is roughly $700,000.

“This is one where a minimal amount of investment could do a tremendous job in turning things around,” said Bass. “If we’re able to change the recreation center, I think we can change a bit of the dynamic of the neighborhood.”

She noted that that the roof will likely be first on the list and added that completing all of the repairs at Morris will take some time. It was a message that Kinsey and Slawson echoed.

“This is going to have to be done in phases,” said Slawson. “The city has a process and it’s not a short process.”

Jackson just hopes the repairs happen.

“We have been yelling for a long time,” he said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal