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Philly is making it easier to turn your block into a place for play this summer

Families play on a North Philadelphia Playstreet in a 2018 photo. (Courtesy of the City of Philadelphia)

Families play on a North Philadelphia Playstreet in a 2018 photo. (Courtesy of the City of Philadelphia)

Lora-Lee Contreras has started every summer weekday for the past roughly 15 years exactly the same way: by placing an orange cone at the entrance of her block of Hope Street, in North Philadelphia, and closing it to traffic.

A few minutes later, she takes toys and a couple of tables out to her closed-to-traffic street and receives, at her door, a delivery of boxes filled with lunches and snacks. The food, served at noon, comes from the city.

The veritable block party that ensues? That comes from the kids who, with the street closed off Monday to Friday, until 4 pm, play ball, dance, hula-hoop, paint the asphalt with chalk or relieve the summer heat with a water hose.

And then at noon, Contreras, also known as Ms. Lory or the lunch lady, serves them food.

“I would get a group of I’ll say 25 to 30, or maybe even 50 at one shot —  keep up with them, wait for my next group, until all my lunches are done. And then I will reopen at 3,” Contreras said. “But they stay playing on the street from 10 to 4.”

Contreras is one of about 350 Philly residents who volunteers to supervise a Playstreet on their block. Philadelphia has run the program for more than 50 years as an extension of the federal free lunch program designed to provide meals to kids during the summer.

But this year, with public pools not opening and access to recreation centers limited because of the coronavirus pandemic and budget cuts, the city wants to expand the initiative to provide more spaces for kids to play and get fed.

But to expand, the city needs volunteers like Contreras. And this year, the numbers are down, which is why the Parks and Recreation Department, which manages the program, is making some changes.

“Residents who lead Playstreets are the definition of the everyday Philly hero: Taking the lead to feed their community, keep kids safe, and offer safe ways to play right on their front stoop,” Parks and Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said. “This summer, families are facing a lot of unknowns, but getting healthy meals to kids shouldn’t be one of them.”

Lora-Lee Contreras on Hope Street in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

To make it easier to enroll your block in the program, the department is relaxing one of its requirements.

Until this year, 75% of the block’s residents had to sign a petition agreeing to participate in the program. Now, considering the difficulties of going door-to-door to get neighbors to sign a form, residents who don’t want to participate will have to submit an objection. Blocks with more than 25% of residents opting out, won’t qualify.

But that’s not the only requirement that might be limiting the program. For once, only small, one-way streets qualified for the program — no numbered, lettered or bus route blocks.

Most importantly, because the program is tied to the meals program, a Playstreet has to include lunches and snacks and can’t be within two blocks of another approved block, a playground or a rec center where food is being distributed. That’s because the program, which costs about $4 million a year, is entirely funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the Pennsylvania Department of Education, as a way to feed kids when they’re out of school.

Advocates pushing Mayor Jim Kenney to expand the number of streets closed to traffic for pedestrian use during the pandemic say those restrictions create unnecessary hurdles.

When applying for Playstreets, residents have to fill out two applications — one for the summer food program and one for a Playstreets activity permit. What if people could just get the permit to close the street without applying for the food program? That’s a suggestion from Jon Geeting, who is a Fishtown resident and the co-founder of 5th Square, an urbanist PAC, and Open Streets PHL.

Or, could the city come up with a different permit that allows residents to close streets temporarily, like Seattle does, asks Geeting, to create more opportunities for people to be outside, especially during the pandemic.

“They need to come up with something that’s sort of similar, but more attuned to the details of the situation right now,” Geeting said.

“We’d like to see neighborhoods be able to have a network of streets that people can use.”

But for now, that’s not something that the city is considering.

While “Playstreets provide a safe place for kids to play outside without worrying about traffic, the primary focus of the program is to provide nutritious meals to kids when school is not in session,” said Maita Soukup, a spokesperson for Parks and Rec.

A program run by ‘everyday heroes’

Soukup said the city is nonetheless working hard to modify and enhance the program to meet the demands of operating while the coronavirus is present within the community.

Usually, the city provides block supervisors like Contreras with a variety of toys and play equipment such as balls, frisbees, and hula hoops. With group activities and sports suspended because of the virus, those will have to change.

“We are rethinking some of the equipment and play supplies we provide to encourage individual activities or ones that encourage safe social distancing,” Soukup said.

Kids play on a Los Angeles street closed to traffic and remade as a play space by Kounkuey Design Initiative, a nonprofit working with the city. (Kounkuey Design Initiative)

There is no shortage of models to look at as the city rethinks the program.

One strong example can be found in Los Angeles, where a nonprofit group, Kounkuey Design Initiative, worked with city officials, to convert streets into spaces for recreation.  Portable play pieces called “Wobbles” and other mobile furniture helped activate their Play Streets.

While Soukup declined to name groups involved in the city’s Playstreets revamp, she said a number of local and national “play partners” would help reimagine recreational opportunities that take social distancing and public health into account.

Contreras, from Hope Street, worries about how the coronavirus would affect her Playstreet this summer. She hopes some of the parents who have participated in the past can help her feed the kids and encourage them to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and keep a distance.

“Cause you know, I want them to come daily and be healthy. I don’t want anyone getting sick of this,” she said.

Contreras said having a space for kids to play safely is important, especially this year. But what grabbed her 15 years ago, and still does, is the free food.

Being a supervisor is a lot of work and responsibility, she said. The supervisor has to fill out the paperwork, go to meetings, and then open and close the street every day from June to August. The volunteer has to receive meals and snacks and serve the food to the kids, and then clean all the mess.

But it’s all worth it, she said, knowing the young people she feeds would go hungry without her work.

Plus she enjoys seeing them grow. She likes talking with them, and teaching them how to eat healthfully.

“When you are giving food away to a child that needs to be fed in the summertime, and it’s a great help…then you sit back and you do your paperwork,” Contreras said. “You did your job. Your job is really feeding these children. The rest is easy.”

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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