Study of city parks finds that they're 'in the toilet'

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According to a six-week study, this photo of Concourse Lake in West Fairmount Park typifies conditions seen throughout much of the city park system.

Rusted and undoubtedly wretched, a toilet that greets visitors at the West River Drive comfort station and picnic area is a latrine that screams "Go anywhere but here."

"Here's the state of our parks - in the toilet," Pete Hoskins, president of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, said yesterday as he flashed a photo of the lavatory during a citizens' hearing.

"The parks are in serious trouble."

More than 150 people gathered at Arch Street United Methodist Church on Broad Street just north of City Hall to hear the results of a six-week study - conducted by citizen volunteers - on the state of the city's parks.

We "did it like they never did it before," Lauren Bornfriend, executive director of the Parks Alliance, said. "We did it with clipboards and with cameras. We did it systematically."

Several years after crusades from the alliance and the Daily News to clean up city parks, many are still languishing in poor condition.

According to Hoskins, all of the volunteers reported neglected grounds, 88 percent reported watershed problems and 75 percent reported dangerous playground conditions.

Most of the city's parks don't have bathrooms and of those that do, 86 percent were reported as stinky, dirty or littered with graffiti.

Only five of the 44 parks inspected had water fountains, and only two of those were working.

Candace Lawler, a fifth-grader at Discovery Charter School, on Parkside Avenue near 51st Street, said her class saw dumping, erosion and invasive plants during its inspection. But it also saw small signs of hope, including lily pads and ducks.

"We want to take safe walks, play and be part of the park," she said.

The problem with the state of the city's parks now is similar to the problems faced over the last several years, said Hoskins, a former executive director of the Fairmount Park Commission.

He said there's "a desperate need for more resources and new leadership" for a park system suffering "chronic underfunding and neglect."

The Fairmount Park budget has "flatlined" since the 1970s, and the Fairmount Park staff has dwindled from 650 workers to fewer than 200 today, Hoskins said.

"Nothing has changed because the system hasn't changed," Bornfriend said.

At least $30 million - double the current funding figure - and an increase in staff is required to improve park conditions, Hoskins said.

"This is not to make the parks like Disney World," he said. "This is just to make a decent park that you deserve."

Equal in importance to funding are changes in the governance of the parks.

Fairmount Park commissioners are selected by the Board of Judges. The alliance proposes that commissioners be appointed by the mayor and a nominating panel.

"That's so the citizens know who is responsible, and so it's clear to everyone that Fairmount Park is a city department," Bornfriend said.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who attended yesterday's hearing, said she and Councilman Darrell Clarke hope legislation will be passed this month to place the new governance recommendation on the November ballot.

"Families need to be able to have picnics without broken glass and tires," Brown said. "Far too many [parks] are unstable, unsafe. We all agree this is a disgrace to our city." *