Philly’s getting its first public statue of an African-American girl

Set to be unveiled this spring, the monument is a nod to the strength and heroism of Philadelphia kids.

Smith Playground Facebook / Billy Penn illustration

Updated 9:20 a.m.

It took 335 years for Philadelphia to erect its first public monument honoring an African American. Up since September 2017, the Octavius Catto statue outside City Hall remembers a 19th century educator and civil rights activist.

Just two years later, the city will notch another milestone: its first statue of an African-American girl.

This spring, South Philly’s Smith Recreation Center will become home to a life-sized bronze of a middleschooler playing basketball, frozen in a decisive moment as she guards the ball from opponents unseen.

The installation is the capstone of a handful of upgrades rolled out at the rec center in the last few years, a renovation spearheaded by former Eagle Connor Barwin’s community development nonprofit Make the World Better.

At 26th and Snyder, the playground had long been in a state of disrepair.

“We were looking for a place with a lot of youth, a lot of activity and intense community participation, but where the facility did not live up to that need,” Claire Laver, executive director of Make The World Better, told Billy Penn. “Smith hit all that criteria.”

So with help from the city, the nonprofit kickstarted a rec center revamp in 2015. The last step is the installation of this new public artwork.

Former Eagles player Connor Barwin, seconds after cutting the ribbon unveiling Smith's renovations

Former Eagles player Connor Barwin, seconds after cutting the ribbon unveiling Smith's renovations

Smith Playground / Facebook

The heroism of Philly kids

Artist Brian McCutcheon was selected to build the capstone installation. In researching the neighborhood for prep work, he discovered there were two schools in the rec center’s immediate vicinity.

So naturally, he thought, the work should honor neighborhood kids.

“Having lived in Philadelphia for so long and knowing it’s a city filled with public monuments to people we consider important historical figures,” said McCutcheon, who taught art classes here before moving to Indianapolis, “I thought it’d be a really nice contrast to have sort of this modestly heroic sculpture, honoring the people who actually use the park.”

The five-foot bronze shows an athletic young girl, seemingly in an intense moment of decision-making, and is meant to demonstrate the strength and heroism of everyday Philly kids, McCutcheon said. Once complete, it’ll go in right next to Smith’s entrance — a spot where a water fountain used to be, before it broke years ago.

The Smith Rec mural

The Smith Rec mural

Smith Playground / Facebook

It’s meant to be an interactive structure. Stationed next to basketball courts, kids will be allowed to play and climb all over it.

“We’re convinced it’s going to become an iconic piece in the collection, a landmark in the area,” said Margot Berg, Philly’s public art director. “It meets so many of our goals in the public art program, and it really reflects the community and the users of that civic space.”

“Those who know of it so far are really thrilled,” Laver said. “I’m excited to see how the community takes ownership of the statue once it’s theirs.”

A $3 million renovation

Even without the statue, the Smith Recreation Center of today looks almost nothing like it did three years ago.

Then, the center’s building was falling apart — and its nonsensical shape forced folks to walk outside just to get to another room. The basketball courts were tired and faded, and the athletic field had turned into ground more closely resembling a dust bowl.

“When kids would play, they would just kick up dust and you could hardly see,” Laver said.

The renovations sought to solve those problems. In all, the West Passyunk center got a ton of new assets — new computers, basketball courts, an outdoor fitness area, a new playground, a one-room addition to the rec center, a turf field, a mural and a track with 10th-mile markers all the way around.

Yes, all of that. How’d they pay for it? Several sources:

  • $1.8 million from the city
  • $1.2 million from Barwin’s Make the World Better Foundation
  • $250,000 from state grants

And thanks to some help from local NPR affiliate WHYY, those new computers came with multimedia production equipment. Now Smith has a fully functioning media lab (and neighbors make their own podcasts).

All these assets have made a difference, per Smith Director Michael Mychack.

“I love it,” Mychack said. “This place is utilized to the max.”

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