‘Leaky roofs’ and ‘unsafe conditions’: Philly advocates block traffic to demand higher budget for Parks and Rec

Demonstrators protested a relatively flat budget proposal for Parks & Rec, saying more money for rec centers would help fight gun violence.

protesters blocking traffic in the street

Members of Philadelphia’s Sunrise Movement dressed as literary characters to demand funding for city services like libraries and parks on May 23. 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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A small group of activists blocked traffic in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square area Thursday to demand more funding for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

They say city rec centers need more staff, better maintenance and longer hours — and the budget Mayor Cherelle Parker proposed earlier this spring for the Department is not sufficient.

“We went to hearings. We went to town halls,” Sunrise activist Wanya Allen said. “We didn’t want to block the roads, but it seems this is the only way that we can actually get them to listen.”

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protesters blocking traffic in the street
Shawmar Pitts (right), dressed as a football, explained why Sunrise Movement protesters calling on the the city to fund Parks and Recreation blocked traffic an angry motorist at 21st and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia on May 23, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The protest comes just over a month before City Council and the Mayor must agree on a final version of next year’s budget.

Park users, advocates and some City Council members have called for more Parks & Rec funding, which they see as key to providing safe spaces for young people to play and fighting gun violence. Some want to see more staff at rec centers, better safety precautions, acceleration of capital projects promised through Rebuild and a bigger emphasis on conservation of natural park spaces.

The activists planned Thursday’s demonstration in a wealthy, majority-white area of the city.

Sonya Sanders, an activist with the Grays Ferry-based group Philly Thrive, said she frequently sees broken swings, missing equipment and closed buildings at parks in majority Black and brown neighborhoods.

“It seems as though in the upper-class neighborhoods, they’re getting the equipment; things are getting fixed faster,” she said. “In the minority neighborhoods, things go years without getting anything done.”

protesters blocking traffic in the street
Sonya Sanders protested with about half a dozen others calling on Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker to fund Parks and Recreation by blocking traffic at 21st and Spruce in Philadelphia on May 23, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Despite saying as a candidate she’d like to “at least double” the city’s investment in Parks & Rec operations by the end of her first term, Parker proposed a budget for the department this spring that was largely flat.

Her $77.8 million spending plan for Parks & Rec is almost $1.7 million lower than the budget Council approved for the department this fiscal year and nearly $8.6 million lower than the amount the Department estimates it will actually spend this fiscal year.

But officials argue this apparent budget cut is deceptive. Capital project staff and supplies are shifting from Parks & Rec to Parker’s new Capital Projects Office, and one-time payments made this year’s budget seem higher. In fact, Parks & Rec officials have said they expect overall spending on parks to increase next fiscal year when responsibilities shifted to other departments and unspent money carrying over is taken into account.

“I’m hoping that I can bring some enhancement, some changes, thinking about our young people — safety, clean, green for Parks & Recreation,” Parks Commissioner Susan Slawson said during a budget hearing before council members last month.

The Department aims to keep the number of recreational programs it runs and people attending the programs flat from this fiscal year to next year. Both targets are lower than the totals for the last fiscal year.

Parks & Rec is requesting fewer budgeted positions than it was allocated this fiscal year, because they’re being transferred to the Capital Projects Office, Slawson wrote in her prepared budget testimony.

The department has struggled to fill its budgeted positions for years. As of December, the department had just 657 full-time employees — only a handful more than it employed roughly a year prior, and more than 300 short of its budgeted total. In her prepared budget testimony, Commissioner Slawson wrote that filling the department’s proposed 930 full-time positions, 75 part-time positions and more than 1,500 seasonal positions next fiscal year would “support extended facility hours and increased management of our natural resources.”

protesters blocking traffic in the street
About half a dozen protesters called on Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker to fund Parks and Recreation as they blocked traffic at 21st and Spruce Streets on the morning of May 23, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Rev. Greg Holston, chair of the violence prevention committee of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, sees funding for rec centers as key to fighting gun violence. He wants to see young people across the city have access to safe and healthy recreation facilities staffed with at least four to five people at all times.

“This is a crucial tool in keeping our young people safe,” he said.

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Holston believes higher salaries would help Parks & Rec recruit and retain staff. He also wants to see the Rebuild program sped up, particularly in areas of Germantown and North Philadelphia.

“There are still leaky roofs,” he said. “There are still unsafe conditions in the buildings. There’s still — from what I could see — mold in some of these buildings.”

Aparna Palantino, head of Parker’s new Capital Projects Office, told Council members last month that shifting Rebuild to the new office will make all capital projects, including Rebuild, more cost-effective and efficient.

Activists at Thursday’s protest said the need for more funding to be channeled to Parks & Rec is about the well-being of the city’s youth.

“We want to keep them safe,” said Shawmar Pitts, co-director of Philly Thrive. “We know that the means are there. … We need to let our legislators know that their constituents and their residents and their communities — this is what we want.”

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