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Over the next seven years, Philadelphia will invest $500 million in revitalizing the city’s parks and recreation centers. The goal of the project, titled “Rebuild,” is to increase access to high-quality facilities that could improve residents’ ties to their communities. Planners considered the needs of everyone from kids to seniors, but Philadelphia teenagers, an often-overlooked population, stand to benefit the most.

Philadelphia has 150 recreation centers, more than any other U.S. city. The hope was that these centers would become community meeting places where locals could go swimming on a hot day, break a sweat in an aerobics class, or join a game of pickup basketball. They would be places where at-risk youths could seek healthy stimulation, develop social skills, and discover talents.

But right now most locations aren’t measuring up. Lawncrest, a park that will likely be a focus of the Rebuild effort, is full of dark, leaky buildings, broken playground equipment, and lawns choked with litter. Initial surveys discovered that less than half of visitors to Lawncrest felt safe from crime. This unease was mostly due to large populations of young men who loitered, smoked pot, and engaged in drug dealing. But in a twist of irony, the group that felt most unsafe were teenage males, the very demographic that caused worry among senior citizens and parents who frequent the park.

At a recent panel discussion highlighting preliminary findings for Rebuild, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell stressed the importance of not discounting these teenagers. Besides being the demographic most prevalent in parks, teens could also help run park programming and potentially grow into tomorrow’s leaders. “We do a lot of outreach to 5- to 12-year-olds, but we don’t pay enough attention to older kids,” Ott Lovell said. “They want to be recognized beyond what you hear on the news every day.”

Waterloo Playground, another Rebuild candidate located in West Kensington, is a prime example of how teens’ energy can be diverted to positive outlets. The center of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, Waterloo was once a no-man’s-land that locals steered clear of. Today, the park is gradually improving, largely thanks to Edwin Desamour, an activist and the executive director of Men in Motion in the Community (MIMIC).

“[At Waterloo,] we deal with a community that’s traumatized,” Desamour explained. “We have to get people used to getting involved.” That might mean anything from encouraging turnout at planning meetings to teaching residents to use email so they can contact officials. But mostly Desamour works with the kids. He keeps track of their whereabouts and goes door to door looking for them when they don’t turn up at the park. Over time, he’s developed the trust and respect of the teenagers who frequent Waterloo, with the hopes that they will be ready to fully utilize and care for the brand-new recreation center that’s in the works.

Recently, he worked with youths to build new park benches and seesaws. When a vandal broke the seesaws, Desamour said the kids were upset, but their anger came from a positive place of pride and responsibility. “I was upset, too, and the kids were consoling me,” he recalled. “[They said,] ‘Don’t worry! We know how to build this stuff.’”

Jeff Hackett, President of Sturgis Playground, has also learned tricks for getting through to hard-to-handle teens. He refrains from lecturing and talks to kids as equals, but he is firm about curtailing negative behaviors. “I invade their space politely but humbly,” he said. “Over time, they take ownership and start policing themselves.”

Sturgis is a success story, held up in contrast to Lawncrest and Waterloo as an example of what can be achieved when a neighborhood gets involved. Besides a new playground complete with water sprayers for hot days, Sturgis features a rec center with programming like girls dance, tae kwon do, and culinary classes. Seventy-six percent of those surveyed said they felt “very safe” at the facilities. Three-quarters of respondents also said they had a positive connection to the location, compared to only half of those surveyed at Lawncrest.

But roughly a decade ago, Sturgis Playground was slated for closure. Community efforts, led by Hackett, were successful in transforming the park to meet the area’s evolving needs. Hackett says he’s seen a big change in the people utilizing the park. Women and girls, previously underserved populations, now turn up in droves for exercise and dance classes. Dads also show up with kids in tow, taking on more parenting responsibilities than Hackett noticed in the past.

When parks and recreation centers are chosen for Rebuild, they are not selected just on the basis of financial need and broken-down facilities. To be a good candidate, a site must also have locals who are willing to roll up their sleeves. Kathryn Ott Lovell has seen that kind of investment at locations like Lawncrest and Waterloo. “There are caring people there and a dedicated community, but the facilities do not reflect that,” she said. Now that the parks are getting long-overdue updates, she expects people will feel an even deeper connection.

But leaders like Jeff Hackett and Edwin Desamour, who have served their neighborhoods for many years, also need to know they can pass the torch to younger residents. Promising numbers of teens have gotten involved in their local parks and proven receptive to mentorship from adult volunteers. Perhaps some of them will be empowered to move into leadership roles. “[During Rebuild], we need to ask ourselves, ‘How do we inspire youths to take over?’” Desamour said. “How do we keep it as a tradition that keeps being passed on?”

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