Recreation centers in Philadelphia neighborhoods are a vital element of their communities. They’re not just where locals go to play sports — they’re in the many ways the educational and social anchors.
The investment the city’s planning to make in many of Philadelphia’s long-neglected recreation centers, libraries and parks is evidence. Through a massive program that’s been dubbed “Rebuild,” the city is looking to invest half a billion dollars into rehabbing and improving the city’s public community spaces in the coming years, though the spaces that will get that extra TLC are still yet to be selected.
So Billy Penn is starting a new series highlighting some of Philadelphia’s recreation centers, ranging from Southwest to the Northeast and including spaces that were recently renovated and others that have long lists of needs.
First up is Kingsessing Recreation Center, one of the city’s oldest and largest rec center spaces that sits on nearly nine acres in Southwest Philadelphia. It’s equipped with an ornate new ceiling in the lobby, a large public pool, a computer lab and it’s just across a lot from the Kingsessing Library. But it also has a rich history, plenty of educational programming and a boxing gym where world-class athletes train.
Let’s take a look at Kingsessing Rec and what makes this Southwest center unique:
Location: 1201 South 51st St.
When it was built: 1916
Size: Sits on 8.4 acres
How many people it serves: From 100 to 175 per day. About 60 percent are kids.
Number of employees and volunteers: Several full-time and seasonal paid employees as well as six boxing coaches and 10 volunteers.
Head of the center: Manager Z. Jamila Abdur-Rahman
Kingsessing Rec is one of the oldest recreation centers in the city. Larry McNell, one of the rec leaders who gave Billy Penn a tour of the facility, said its plot of land was once the Belmont Cricket Club, an elite facility that — according to the Department of Parks and Recreation — was frequented by people like Captain John P. Green, a higher-up at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and John Barron Colahan, Jr., a well-known real estate lawyer of his time.
But the club disbanded in 1913, and that’s when the city purchased the land for $145,000. The old clubhouse was demolished, and the building that’s there now was finished and officially dedicated by 1916. By 1919, the library on the same lot — one of 30 in the city bankrolled by prominent philanthropist Andrew Carnegie — had also been constructed. In 2009, the property was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic places.
Features open to the public during certain hours are: A handball wall, a pool, a sports field, two handball courts, two tennis courts, three baseball fields, four basketball courts, a weight room, an auditorium (for talent shows, parties, plays and more), a classroom, a computer lab, a game room and a martial arts room.
Programs include: After school (K-5) program, summer day camp, Jayhawks basketball program, Road Runners Football, Southwest District Services, Boxing program, Step-Up Fitness Program, Martial Arts, Total Commitment Program (video games and pool in the game room), Music Program, Weight Room and Exercise, Narcotics Anonymous, Basketball open gym, “Princess in Bloom” program, “Bravohood” Leadership Academy, Totally Tots, Project Village Restored (tutoring and career readiness), New Beginning Family Worship and Philadelphia Youth Advocate Program.
What makes it unique
McNell said while he’s excited about all the rec center’s programming options, he’s most proud of the boxing program. The gym where boxers train that sits in one of the main building’s wings is fully equipped with a large boxing ring and is covered in posters touting the successes of people who have trained there before, ranging in age from small kids to adults.
Hanging from the ceiling are signs honoring the top boxers who have trained there, including Marquise Noel, who in 2015 was the Pennsylvania Golden Gloves champion in the 123-pound novice division at age 18. Earlier this year, two 8-year-olds known as the Grandy Twins were featured on NBC’s Little Big Shots with Steve Harvey.
The center’s boxing program takes place Monday to Friday from 4 to 7 p.m.
One cool thing
McNell pointed to the upstairs computer lab as “a key spot” in the rec center. It’s equipped with 10 computers, and McNell said about 75 people a day are in and out using them for everything from homework to job searching to resume building to simply learning about using computers. Sitting in front of the computers were 3D printers donated last year by Comcast as part of an effort to allow kids to use the new technology.
Stuff for kids
After-school programs are a key function of the city’s recreation centers. McNell said these critical programs “get kids off the streets” and provide an healthy, educational alternative.
Kids come to the downstairs classroom every day to complete homework and take part in other programming that includes supervisors and meals. Students at the center recently completed an art project — a mural on the wall inside the classroom that’s labeled the Kingsessing Coat of Arms. It features an eagle, a dog and a… small family of opossums. (Kids, man.)
McNell said one of the most powerful parts of the educational program is how kids’ learning can bring adults to the center, too. It’s like a trickle-up effect in which children learn and then bring their parents in, too. He described kids as a “bridge” to engaging with adults.
“I don’t want people thinking the rec center is just sports,” McNell said. “It’s sports, but it’s also art and health and gardening. We’re teaching them different things. This is really a community center.”
What the rec center needs
McNell said the center is in need of features that can help it with accessibility issues for residents with disabilities, namely a wheelchair ramp to enter the building. Maybe one day, he said, the rec center could be outfitted with an elevator that would allow the elderly and others to reach the second floor without taking the stairs.