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The Carousel House Advisory Council is in panic mode. The group of parents, adult participants, and volunteers who help run the the nation’s only city-funded rec center for people with disabilities are hoping they can convince Philadelphia to keep it open, but things don’t look good.
It was April when the Department of Parks and Recreation gave notice that the one-of-a-kind facility would not reopen post-COVID. Unattended repairs have made the building unsafe.
“Demolition of the facility is the most likely outcome,” department spokesperson Maita Soukup confirmed to Billy Penn.
Advisory council president Tamar Riley found the Carousel House two decades ago, when her 39-year-old son Gabriel was just a teen.
With his intellectual disability, Riley worried he’d be uncomfortable at a traditional rec center — that kids would bully him, or the programming wouldn’t be accessible. So she took him to the Carousel House in West Fairmount Park.
Designed for people with either physical or intellectual disabilities, it had plenty of people like Gabriel, who were able to take advantage of a ton of accessible programming and a well-trained staff.
“That was the only place that I felt comfortable with letting him go,” Riley said. “He was among his peers. He fostered relationships that he still has today.”
Now that option is no longer available for Philadelphia kids.
In place of the Carousel House, city officials say they’ll likely build a more general recreation center, with construction starting later this year. The plan is to relocate accessible programming to other facilities across the city, and revamp all rec centers to make them more inclusive.
“It’s a great idea, but it’s not reality,” Riley said. “You can’t tell me they’re going to have these types of programs at each of the centers. They’re going to come up short.”
National wheelchair basketball tournaments and a pool with a rising floor
Built in 1987 on the parkland where Belmont Avenue and the Avenue of the Republic meet, the East Parkside neighborhood facility regularly served about 600 people before it closed due to the pandemic.
The sheer scope of accessible programming made the Carousel House appealing to a wide range of participants.
There were ceramics and line-dancing classes. A music therapy program and an intellectual disability support group. There was a kitchen that provided free meals. The indoor pool was outfitted with a floor that rises, so people who use wheelchairs could swim, and the parking lot was stocked with accessible vans for field trips. For nearly 40 years, its wheelchair basketball team hosted national tournaments.
Perhaps most importantly, the Carousel House fostered the feeling that people with disabilities are normal.
“Everybody that walks in, that goes through those doors, has some type of a disability,” said Mike Martin, who is advisory council treasurer and also uses a wheelchair. “So there’s no bullying. There’s no people making fun of one another.”
Nationwide, advocates say few rec centers actually meet the needs of people with disabilities. Why is Philadelphia allowing its unique facility to close?
The building is basically falling apart, said Soukup, the Parks & Rec spokesperson. To make the space safe for visitors again, it would need a new roof, HVAC system, and dehumidification system, plus other repairs to the steel structure, as well as the pool.
Repair requests unanswered, feeling like ‘low-hanging fruit’
Frustrated members of the Carousel House Advisory Council say they’ve been funneling unanswered repair requests through rec center staffers for years.
Soukup said Parks & Rec is only able to respond to maintenance requests that don’t require capital investment, and “the overwhelming majority of the maintenance needs at Carousel House require capital funding to address.”
The Advisory Council also emailed a request for help to District 4 Councilmember Curtis Jones, which they say also went unanswered.
Jones’ spokesperson, Charlita Davis, told Billy Penn he’s ready to see the demolition through: “The facility [long ago] reached its obsolescence with broken equipment and increased cost of maintenance.”
The Carousel House is one of two Philly rec centers likely slated for demolition. Outstanding structural issues at Vare Recreation Center mean the aging Grays Ferry facility will also be torn down and replaced.
Unlike Vare, which was built in 1916, the Carousel House is just 34 years old.
“You mean to tell us that a facility from 1987 is the worst that you have in the whole city?” said Martin, the advisory council treasurer. “There’s no logic to that. I just think we’re low-hanging fruit.”