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Five years ago, North Central Philadelphia lost its recreation center. Winchester Rec at 15th and York was among at least five centers that were “unstaffed” by the city around that time, and eventually it was shut down entirely.

But over the summer, the neighborhood got its playspace back.

The building reopened last June, after the Department of Parks and Recreation invested $95,000 in renovations and repairs. The city also hired three paid workers to run the place, which hosts after-school programs and community meetings.

What sparked the turnaround? Thanks are in order for Tinamarie Russell, president of the North Central Philadelphia CDC. She started lobbying for the reopening in late 2018, collecting signatures from hundreds of neighbors who pined for their much-missed public space. Then she pestered Parks & Rec so persistently that the department found the resources for a resurrection.

“We needed to have that. We need more rec centers,” Russell told Billy Penn. “It was time, with some advocacy, for it to be reopened.”

North Central drill coach Danita Bates felt the lack acutely. Without a local rec center to host the four-times-per-week practices, she held them on the asphalt outside Duckrey elementary school at 15th and Diamond.

It was a tough grind. Kids got distracted by passersby, and there was no permanent place to store their drums and other instruments.

“Now that I’m inside I can get more done,” said Bates, a 50-year-old mother of two. “I can have attention from them, I have somewhere to store their equipment. It makes it much easier.”

Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

‘We had kids playing in the street’

Under Mayor Michael Nutter, Parks & Rec decided that at least five of Philly’s rec centers didn’t have a big enough audience to make it worth their while to keep open.

So the department officially “unstaffed” them — cutting the paid positions that oversaw them, and giving a key to a designated community volunteer who could open the buildings upon request.

The Winchester was among them, and its closure left a void in the neighborhood.

“We had kids playing in the street, trying to squeeze into our little office,” said Russell, the CDC president. “It wasn’t fair that they should have to squeeze into a small space when we had a rec center right around the corner.”

That’s when Russell mobilized. She organized her neighbors, instructing them to call Parks & Rec and repeatedly ask for resources for the Winchester, even though she knew it wasn’t going to be light lift.

By that time, the Winchester had a laundry list of repairs needed in order to make it safe. A list of parts that needed replacement or fixing includes:

  • Roof
  • HVAC system
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Water heater
  • Exterior lights
  • Sidewalks
  • Door knobs and locks
  • Benches
  • Fresh paint

It’s unclear why the site wasn’t on the list for Rebuild, Mayor Kenney’s signature revitalization program paid for in part with soda tax dollars.

But with Russell and the neighborhood making all kinds of noise, the city found a way to pay for it out of the general fund.

“Working with residents to support their vision for their neighborhood park, playground, or rec center is a big part of what Parks & Recreation does,” said department spokesperson Maita Soukup. “The effort to reopen the recreation building at Winchester Playground is a good example of this.”

Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Neighborhood kids are literally thrilled

Now reinvigorated, the North 15th Street rec center hosts an abundance of programming.

There’s a daily after-school program, with free meals and a tutor to help kids with their homework. There’s a girl scout troop that convenes at the Winchester, plus Bates’ drill team and regular Narcotics’ Anonymous meetings.

It also serves as an easy location for other community meetings, like one that provided info on how to report illegal dumping. Last year, the Winchester brought in the Streets Department to provide free recycling bins.

On a good day, any of the aforementioned programs can fill two rooms, per facility supervisor Jameele Mitchell.

“People are really excited, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember that rec center,’” Mitchell said. “They’re definitely really excited that it’s open and being used, and that it looks nice. They enjoy that the kids can come use the space.”

Indeed, the center is already making an impact.

Deyonna Hawkins celebrated her 10th birthday on Sunday. She’s among the two dozen kids who attend the Winchester’s everyday after-school program. Before this academic year, she didn’t have access to a free program like this.

“I’d be at home, tired, bored,” Hawkins said.

“Here, you can go outside and play,” the third grader gushed. “You can come in and read a book. You can do some activities and play games.”

Moving forward, the staff has ambitious goals for the site. First order of business: a brand new summer camp with regular field trips. It’ll be the first time in years that the Winchester has hosted a day camp — and one of very few free opportunities for kids in the neighborhood.

“Around here, the only really dedicated building that I’m aware of that supported youth was Duckrey School,” said Bates, the drill coach. “But now this is up and running. It’s better because it’s here.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...