Joy Chen, 16, and friend pull trash thrown into the lake at FDR Park, before participating in boating or fishing with the Discovery Pathways outdoors program in July 2023. (Meir Rinde/Billy Penn)
Listen to an audio version of this story.

Repeated vandalism at FDR Park is threatening the future of popular community boating and fishing programs, as well as the outdoor education programs that have flourished in the South Philly park.

Over the past three years, the nonprofit Discovery Pathways organization has taught local teens — many from immigrant and refugee families — to boat, fish, and care for the park’s lake area, taken them camping, and given them a crucial escape from the isolation of the early pandemic.

The organization’s youth team now runs a variety of park programs for the wider public: free family fishing events at the historic Boathouse at FDR Park, events oriented toward older visitors like birding and nature walks, and tours for school, camp, and community groups.

“During COVID we saw so many people trapped inside and isolated and facing mental health challenges,” said Adam Forbes, the group’s executive director. “FDR is a large place where people could start to get outside and recreate again and come together. So we really kind of grew out of the community’s needs and desires.”

But Forbes said the program is struggling to deal with a devastating series of incidents of overnight vandalism during the past month. 

People have repeatedly broken into the boathouse’s storage spaces and stolen or destroyed thousands of dollars worth of kayaks, fishing rods, and other equipment, making it difficult at times to run activities. They’ve also burned park furniture, and dumped paint and portable toilets into the lake.

The police have beefed up nighttime patrols and the city’s Parks & Recreation Department says it’s having park rangers monitor the boathouse after hours, when late-night revelers regularly party at the site and sometimes destroy property. Additional security cameras are also being added.

Stopping the destruction and losses is essential to the survival of the park’s nature programs, Forbes said.

The constant incidents “have been a major turning point,” he said. “We’ve tried every possible avenue with the city. We’ve been honest with the park — if it continues, we just can’t keep operating community programs here.”

Discovery Pathways programs give neighborhood kids and adults a chance to interact with the lake at FDR Park. (Courtesy Adam Forbes)

Teens regularly pull trash from the lake

The 348-acre FDR Park is a hugely popular destination, and the boathouse’s open-air upper platform is continually in use on weekends for casual sightseeing, birthday parties, and other events. To a certain extent, the Discovery Pathways teens are used to dealing with trash in the lake and people otherwise misusing the site. 

As green-shirted members of the group’s youth empowerment program set up for a community fishing day last Wednesday afternoon, some handed out rods to visiting families while others put on rubber gloves and used grabbers or improvised tools to pick up debris.

Joy Chen, a 16-year-old Central High student and Discovery Pathways leader, walked out onto the boathouse’s wooden dock and began looking for crushed cans in the reeds along the edge of the lake, reaching out with a kayak paddle to bring them close enough to fish out of the water.

“A lot of the time there’s beer cans, beer bottles, sometimes people like to drink their tea and dump it out here as well,” Chen said. “There’s a lot of plastic cans, plastic bottles, plastic bags. It’s quite dangerous for the fish and some of the animals that live here as well. So we just want to make sure that it’s clean.”

People regularly hold large late-night parties at the boathouse, despite a rule against being in the park after hours and a ban on bringing in alcohol, said Forbes, the program leader. The park’s gates are locked at night but people find ways to get their cars in anyway, he said.

Recent Boathouse at FDR Park vandalism includes doors broken when they’re forced open, even after being boarded up; paint splashed around the historic floor and columns; and materials dumped into the water, causing an oil slick. (Courtesy Adam Forbes)

The park has seen serious vandalism in the past. In 2012, for example, a blaze apparently sparked by fireworks destroyed a new, $300,000 playground. It’s not always by accident: Last year someone sabotaged construction equipment in protest of a massive, $250 million renovation of the park that’s currently underway, which has controversially involved clearing a section of meadow

Philly Parks & Rec used to offer pedal boat and kayak rentals at the lake, but that ended several years ago after boats were repeatedly stolen, burned, thrown in the water, and sunk, Forbes recalled. The boathouse got some nice furniture donations after the Flower Show was held in the park in 2021 and 2022, but those also got trashed and thrown in the water, he said.

The recent series of incidents stands out for its ongoing destructiveness, according to people involved in park activities.

The intentional damage “goes far beyond late night ‘drinking in the park,’” the Friends of FDR Park volunteer group said in an email. “This is antisocial behavior. It harms our community and directly impacts the hundreds of young people enrolled in our boating and fishing programs.”

Breaking doors to steal rods, dump paint, break paddles — and disappoint kids

The surge in vandalism started about a month ago, when one morning the Discovery Pathways crew arrived to find several porta-potties in the lake, which polluted the water and were difficult to remove. 

A couple days later someone broke open a door and tossed kayaks into the water, most of which were recovered. That night vandals broke a bunch of boat paddles and threw supplies like hand sanitizer, sunblock and bug spray in the lake, per Forbes.

The executive director fixed the lock, but a couple nights later someone busted a sturdy door on the other side of the boathouse, stole 20 fishing rods, broke more paddles, and trashed cleaning supplies and tools. 

He drilled the door shut until the city could make repairs, but the next morning he found it broken open again, and fishing gear and electrical equipment stolen, he said.

The vandals also took marine paint intended for fixing up boats, dumping it in the lake and on the boathouse’s upper level. Discovery Pathway has suffered about $11,000 in losses, according to Forbes, not including cleanup efforts and costs to the city to replace doors and make other repairs.

With so much equipment missing, a recent community fishing day ran short of rods. The group has been depending on loaners from other organizations, and is accepting donations to help stock back up on equipment.

“It’s devastating for our programs and for our youth to come in and see,” Forbes said. “They worked so hard to set up the space and provide it to the community, and then it’s getting trashed over and over.”

The police took a report on the damage, but the most they can do is shoo underage drinkers out of the park, he was told, because they can’t arrest anyone unless the person is caught in the act of stealing or vandalizing.

Discovery Pathways programs give neighborhood kids and adults a chance to interact with the lake at FDR Park. (Courtesy Adam Forbes)

Having park rangers visit the site at night is critical to preventing late-night partiers from ravaging the boathouse, Forbes believes, citing it as common practice in New York and other cities. 

The Parks Department said it is deploying rangers after hours, but declined to say how many or how often. The department, which is often described as underfunded, has 20 full-time rangers plus 15 to 20 seasonal rangers to oversee more than 10,000 acres of parkland citywide, including golf courses, recreation centers, athletic fields and other facilities.

Vandalism “is not isolated to any one Philadelphia park and is a challenge for parks and rec departments across the state and country,” spokesperson Maita Soukoup said in an email. The boating and fishing programs will continue, “but may experience temporary disruptions while equipment is repaired and replaced.”

More park rangers might help, but where is the funding?

After the city stopped offering boat rentals a few years ago, various community organizations in the area stepped in and sponsored youth activities at the lake. Forbes, a high school teacher who was working at summer programs as a side job, saw a huge demand for mental health and youth programs during the pandemic and founded Discovery Pathways.

Initially, teens were referred to him by mental health agencies, but now they also connect with the program through word of mouth, interpreters, translators, and organizations connected to South Philly’s Southeast Asian community like SEAMAAC, Vietlead, and the state Migrant Education Program.

“The teens are mostly from refugee and immigrant groups we work with,” Forbes said. “We saw those are a lot of the communities that were really underserved and lacking access to summer programs and after school programs, and paying job opportunities.”

The organization runs all of the park’s boating, fishing, and environmental programs, which include training in water quality testing as part of the regional RiverWays collaborative. The kids go rock climbing, kayaking, and fishing in state parks outside of Philadelphia and end the season with a camping trip. 

Discovery Pathways programs give neighborhood kids and adults a chance to interact with the lake at FDR Park. (Courtesy Adam Forbes)

The group puts on popular community boating days twice a month on Saturdays during the summer, regularly drawing more than 250 people and sometimes close to 400.

“It’s a great place for beginners to boat because the lake is so safe. We don’t have as much tides and currents and things as the Schuylkill or other places,” Forbes said.

As participant Chen and a fellow crew member, 16-year-old Say Htoo, pulled cans out of the water, she recalled that the program had seemed “kind of tiring” when they started out three years ago, but she and the others eventually got used to the work.

“Our program is quite fun. We do a lot of trips like hiking, and kayaking, and sometimes we have archery at the lake as well,” Chen said. 

“During the quarantine, most people didn’t get to go out,” Htoo added. “It created a good opportunity for us to go on many of these trips and do many things that we never tried before.”

Parks spokesperson Soukup and the Friends of FDR Park stressed that the park remains a welcoming place despite the recent vandalism, thanks in large part to the work of residents and volunteers who dedicate their time to maintaining it and creating public programs.

“The vast majority of neighbors and park visitors … continue to pour their time, effort, and attention into FDR Park to make it the lovely respite it is now,” the Friends group said. “It will only get better with your help.”

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...