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About 100 people gathered Saturday morning in West Philadelphia to protest the demolition of the city’s only recreation center designed for people with disabilities.
The protest, organized by the all-volunteer Carousel House Advisory Council, included former employees, neighbors, parents, people who participated in programming — and the occasional honk from a supportive motorist driving by. Their message: Repair and reopen the Carousel House, instead of demolishing it and replacing it with a generalized recreation center.
The demonstration culminated in protesters blocking the intersection of Belmont Avenue and the Avenue of the Republic, shutting down traffic for about 20 minutes.
“I’ve been coming out here to the Carousel House for 28 years, and I’m not ready to stop coming out,” said advisory council president Tamar Riley, whose son has a disability. “So we’re here today to lift our voices in unison.”
Billy Penn reported last month that Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation had decided to tear down the 34-year-old rec center on the edge of West Fairmount Park.
The building’s condition is beyond repair, according to department spokesperson Maita Soukup. To welcome guests again, it would need a new roof, HVAC system, and dehumidification system, plus other repairs to the steel structure and the pool.
Under city plans, the neighborhood surrounding the Carousel House will get a brand new standard recreation center. Neighborhood leaders told Billy Penn they would welcome a new facility, but don’t want to lose the original, either.
“I love the Carousel House and I value it for people with disabilities. I’m proud to have it in my neighborhood,” said Alexandra McFadden, president of the Centennial Parkside CDC.
Instead of rebuilding the facility, Parks & Rec said it will work on making every recreation center throughout the city inclusive, which Soukup said follows modern accessibility standards and wouldn’t confine people with disabilities to one building.
“Parks & Rec joins disability rights advocates, educators, and recreation professionals across the country to work toward a parks and recreation system where all members of the community can access and enjoy recreation near where they live,” Soukup said.
Carousel House advocates aren’t excited about that plan. Though they agree all recreation centers should be accessible, they also say a dedicated space is invaluable.
“It might be a good idea,” said Gloria Singleton, whose son Kevyn used to visit the rec center three times a week. “But to me, all I know is the Carousel House. And I’m praying that they stay open.”
A rec center where people can feel ‘at home’
Singleton, who lives in North Philadelphia, is distraught.
Her 48-year-old son, Kevyn, has Down syndrome. He’s been going to the Carousel House at least three times a week for decades, playing basketball, swimming and attending the regular dances.
Kevyn’s excitement to be there was matched by Singleton’s sense of peace at sending him. There, she knew he was safe. He was with staff members who were trained to take care of him, and he wouldn’t be bullied — because everyone at the Carousel House was just like him.
“It gives him something to do,” Singleton said. “He gets to be around other adults, people that don’t tease him or anything. He feels comfortable. He feels at home.”
The Carousel House was formative for Andrew Reid. Growing up, the 28-year-old West Philly resident played wheelchair basketball at the Fairmount Park recreation center. It gave him a sense of community, he said, and taught him resilience.
“It’s really hard being in a wheelchair already. The odds are really just stacked against you,” Reid said. “Without the Carousel House…all these young kids out here don’t reach all the peaks that they want to reach and really become who they want to be.”
Some of the Carousel House’s programming will be relocated starting in September.
All daytime programs and some evening classes, like music, ceramics and arts and crafts, will be moved to Gustine Recreation Center at 4863 Ridge Ave. The new locations for athletic programs are still TBD.
Generalized or specialized? Neighborhood leader: ‘We can do both’
A priority for Parks & Rec is to turn the Carousel House into a recreation center that can serve the entire East and West Parkside neighborhoods, per department spokesperson Soukup.
CDC president McFadden supports that goal — but she wishes it didn’t have to come at the expense of the Carousel House. Her organization currently hosts community meetings there, and uses produce from the urban farm to feed neighbors experiencing food insecurity.
McFadden would rather see the city fully reopen the Clayborn Lewis Recreation Center at 38th and Poplar streets, which she said is currently only staffed by one part-time employee.
“Just fix up the one we have and remake the Carousel House, bring it up to the standards to serve the special needs population,” McFadden said. “We can do both.”
Soukup said Parks & Rec will begin its community engagement process for the new planned facility in the fall.
Councilmember Derek Green, whose son is on the autism spectrum, hosted a hearing last month about the Carousel House with Council’s Committee on People with Disabilities and Special Needs.
“I definitely understand the perspective of having a safe place for those that have learning and physical differences,'” Green told Billy Penn. “But I also understand the other perspective, of being able to go to any location in the city and it being accessible to those with physical or learning differences.”
He’s planning to host a community conversation this summer with Parks & Rec officials and Carousel House stakeholders to look for middle ground.
Councilmember Curtis Jones, whose district includes the Carousel House, previously told Billy Penn he supports the demolition of the Carousel House. His staff didn’t respond to a request for updated comment.
Carousel House advisory council president Tamar Riley said if the city doesn’t change its plan, her group will continue to make noise.
“This is our special place,” Riley said. “And this is the first of many rallies to help save the Carousel House.”