Restoring the park in Hunting Park to place of play, source of pride

Public recreation areas in Philadelphia’s Hunting Park neighborhood are undergoing a massive renovation. Upgrades include new playgrounds, a community garden and athletic fields.

Supporters of the multimillion-dollar project say after years of neglect, they want to return the historic 87-acre Hunting Park park in North Philadelphia to its former glory.

On Friday, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard helped dedicate a baseball field. “Playing baseball in my neighborhood — it helped me to grow into the athlete that I am today ,” he said. “Positive recreational outlets like baseball advance self-esteem, creativity, productivity and leadership.  And I encourage the youth of this community to treasure and take care of this field.”

Residents say an improved park is a cornerstone for bringing the neighborhood back. A bright spot for kids

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Niama Joyner, whose kids love the playground equipment, agrees.

“Before they did all these changes, you didn’t really have anywhere to take your kids.  They had to stay in the house,” she said. “And now, with this cute little playground area, it’s really nice.” Now Joyner says she brings her kids there to play all the time.  A lifelong neighborhood resident, Joyner, 25, says it’s not great.  There are crime and other troubles, but she is so happy with the park renovation that she marched right up to thank those behind the project. “I want to say ‘thank you.’  I want to give you a hug,” announced Joyner to community leader Catalina Hunter, who has lived in the Hunting Park community since 1996.   “Right now the community is looking to have more activities for children and also older people,” Hunter said. Catalyst for positive change

The Fairmount Park Conservancy is leading the Hunting Park Revitalization Project.   Sitting inside the Hunting Park Recreation Center, the conservancy’s executive director, Kathryn Ott Lovell, said it’s not just a professional undertaking. “My grandfather was a security guard at the Bud plant in Hunting Park back in the 1950s.  So my family — my mom and my aunts and uncles remember their family bringing them down to Hunting Park for the weekends to ride the carousel, to swim in the lake,” Lovell said. “Unfortunately, after industry left and the social ills that plagued our city in the 1980s and ‘90s, it really was time for revitalization.” Lovell, who believes parks can be catalysts for positive change in the communities, said what’s happening in Hunting Park is worth the money.   “We’ve raised close to $3.7 million and it has come from a variety of different sources.  It’s truly a public-private partnership,” Lovell said.

The state put up $1.5 million through a redevelopment capital assistance program grant. “We have $800,000 coming from the city of Philadelphia, and then we’ve raised the rest through private foundation, corporations and many individuals,” Lovell said. Lovell says redeveloping the park has its challenges. The neighborhood’s dog-fighting problem means the new playgrounds can’t have any swings because dog fighters use the seats to strengthen the dogs’ jaws, she said.

And there’s a noise problem too; outside, there’s the buzz of ATVs tearing up and down an empty strip of grass. Nurturing a neighborhood

Over at the community garden, Dr. Victoria Johnson is focusing her attention on the plots in front of her.   “In relationships, in community development, in everything we do, we are impatient, we are often inconsiderate, we’re often self-centered and yet a garden teaches you that you have to have the right soil, the right patience,” Johnson said. “So this brings it all together.  It’s perfect therapy for the neighborhood.” Johnson says the project gives neighbors a chance to get involved and meet each other.  She expects that will send ripple effects into the whole neighborhood.

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