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Kids of SCI-EN Celebrate Park Groundbreaking

May 4, 2011

Tuesday afternoon, beneath bright sunshine, hundreds of school children and local residents thronged the tiny Rainbow de Colores playground on 5th Street in North Philadelphia, filling the long neglected park with more people – and more optimism – than it had seen in decades.

The occasion was a ceremonial groundbreaking for a thorough renovation of the park. The real work had already begun: a construction crew fired up a jackhammer before the dignitaries had even left the scene.

The renovations are slated to be finished in time for summer. The fixes include new play equipment, a spray yard, and – just as important, given the playground’s mixed history – high fences and lighting, designed to make the locale less inviting to drug dealers and users.

“It’s going to be clean, it’s going to be secure and we’re going to keep it secure so our children and their children can come here to play,” said Priscilla Preston, a longtime local resident who was one of the community members key to the park’s original construction in the mid-1970s.

Then, as now, the burden was largely on neighbors to maintain the park, not the city. For a while, the park was safe enough. But it became a target for metal scrappers, and drug dealers began to use the rear of the park, which backed up on a little used alley, as a place of business.

For that reason, the park made for an ideal early action project for the LISC and APM-led Sustainable Communities Initiative in Eastern North Philadelphia. Officers from the 26th Police District had targeted the nearby intersection of 5th and York Streets for extra enforcement, and they felt that a reclaimed park – full of kids and their parents – would go a long way toward making the entire area less hospitable to criminals.

LISC and APM convinced Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez to pay for much of the project with city recreation funds, and rounded up foundation support to cover the rest.

“The more that we can make this a fun place to play, the safer it will be for everybody,” LISC Philadelphia Executive Director Andrew Frishkoff said at the groundbreaking. “And that’s what LISC is trying to do here, to make this a fun place to play, and a safer place.’

The hope is the park becomes something of an outdoor neighborhood gathering spot, not just a playground. There are plans for movie nights, a big party to make the park’s re-opening and other events.

“We deserve to have public spaces that are beautiful,” said Betsy Casañas, who runs Semilla Arts Initiative, a non-profit that helps kids connect to their communities through art projects like murals, including the one at Rainbow de Colores playground. “We deserve to have places where our kids can run and play and be safe.”

Emily Alamo felt safe in Rainbow de Colores when she played there as a child. Now, though, as a mother of two – a six year old girl and toddler son – Alamo is reluctant to bring her kids to the park. When she does, she is careful to scan the ground for debris the drug dealers and users might have left behind. She was thrilled to hear that the park would be fixed up, and said she was willing to do her part to keep it safe.

“I can be out here every day with my kids and let them run around if I don’t have to look around for needles and bags all the time,” Alamo said. “People stopped caring before, I guess. I don’t want that to happen this time.”

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