Neighbors, school officials look to keep Houston’s playground a community asset

A group of Mt. Airy neighbors is concerned about the fate of the playground at Henry H. Houston Elementary.

Nearly 10 years ago, shortly after the playground was built, the Friends of Houston Playground made an agreement with the school that it would handle playground upkeep and maintenance and cover associated costs.

Over the years, however, the group has become largely inactive as founding members’ children grew up and no longer frequented the playground.

That’s left the playground in less than tip-top shape and, following the erection of the fence, a community without access to the playground on weekends and during the summer.

Locked out

Near neighbors on Bryan Street and Rural Lane are fed up with seeing weekend playground goers unable to enter as well as youths jumping the fence and partaking in questionable activities at night.

After the fence was erected several years ago, community members stepped in, posting playground hours and enlisting a paid neighbor to unlock the gate, according to neighbor Marilyn Lambert.

As of late, however, no one from the community has been taking on the responsibility of unlocking the gate. As a result, the school’s maintenance crews are locking and unlocking the gates during school hours only.

With the fence being locked so often, Lambert said kids have been climbing in. She worries one will take a nasty spill while hopping the fence.

“I sit on my front porch and I see kids climb over the fence,” she said. “So it’s not keeping anybody out.”Neighbors, she said, also worry about what activities might be going on after dark. Lambert said, for example, that there was a late-night fire in the schoolyard.

The incident put many neighbors on edge.

“A neighbor was in her back bedroom and just happened to look out the window and saw the flames and smoke, then called the fire department,” she said. “There were kids there and they were of course gone by the time the [Philadelphia] Fire Department got there.”

David Biddle, also a near neighbor, said it wasn’t the first fire.

In addition, Lambert said the playground is not well lit, which increases the potential for drug use and vandalism at night.

Unclear responsibility

Marie Cyr, who was one of the original members of the Friends of Houston Playground, said that the group was required to have a bank account that included money to be used to cover annual costs of upkeep and management, about $5,000.

The account is held by WMAN.

Houston’s Principal Kimberly Newman said the playground is in the hands of the community, according to the agreement.

“It is run by the community, it’s maintained by the community,” she’s said during a Thursday night meeting held to discuss the playground. “We use it too, and we do our best [to maintain it].”

But the contract also states, according to Marilyn Cohen, West Mt. Airy Neighbor’s executive director, that if the Friends are not taking care of the playground, responsibility will revert back to the school district.Cohen has stepped in as a mediator of sorts.

Repairs needed

Since money is tight in the district, Newman said she worries the playground will fall into disrepair and will be taken down.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to do it on our own,” she said. “Once something became unsafe, it would probably be shut down. I would hate to see the playground fall apart.”

Rusty Prall, one of the other original members of the Friends of Houston Playground, said the playground upkeep and management will likely cost more than the usual $5,000 of years past.

“The basic year-to-year upkeep is woodchips, 60 cubic yards,” he said, adding that volunteers usually do that and the wood chips cost about $1,800. “The repairs have been minimal, but what it needs now is a little bit more because of the time because it’s wood, it’s outdoors, it’s fully exposed.”

Prall said the playground’s swings need new bolts and the equipment needs to be oiled from time to time.

But the real problem, past members said, is getting someone to take charge of managing the repairs, unlocking of the gate and coordinating volunteers.

A possible solution

During Thursday night’s meeting, Houston’s Home & School Association president Meredith Haskins said that she thinks the organization should help get parents of current students involved in volunteer work, management and fundraising. But, she said she’ll have to take the issue to her fellow board members first.

“The kids in the community and the school need this playground,” she said. “How to generate the people to work is through the children. If the parents see how happy these kids are for the playground, they’ll want to volunteer.”

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