City rec centers scarred by decades of neglect

Brian Sell, supervisor of the Athletic Recreation Center, and Diane Scott, the after-school program coordinator for the center.

At McVeigh Recreation Center in Kensington, the cranky boiler heats some rooms so unbearably hot that, even in February, sweaty, red-faced after-school teachers huddle children around creaky air conditioners for relief.

At the J. Wright Recreation Center in Mantua, the boiler didn't work at all during the recent cold snap. On frozen evenings, children played basketball in a gymnasium so cold they could see their breath.

Meanwhile, the kids at the Athletic Recreation Center in Brewerytown prepare for their Black History Month talent show on a stage with no working lights or sound system. The curtains are torn. Peeling paint litters the stage.

Admission is $1 and a canned good. It will go to the center's shoestring after-school programs.

At Vare Recreation Center in South Philadelphia, staffers board up broken windows with plywood. They have stopped counting the cracks that run like fault lines in the walls. In the center's sprawling basement rooms, spaces once filled with laughter and life, the ceramics kiln and bike shop sit shuttered, as if everyone just got up one day and never returned.

Stop by so many of our city's perpetually underfunded recreation centers, and these are the things you see. Soiled carpets and broken furniture. Leaky roofs and tattered playgrounds. Bare supply closets. Crud-covered floors. Stoves that reek of gas. Toilets that spill sewage.

And countless dedicated workers and volunteers doing all they can with the little the city can give them - and doing the rest on their own.

We've been a cash-strapped city for a long time. We've faced decades of impossible funding choices.

But now, Center City is humming while so many of our neighborhoods continue to spiral - while recreation centers that could serve as havens where children can play and learn and feel safe literally crumble from neglect.

This is the worth we've assigned to our children. It's a disgrace.

And despite Center City's undeniable momentum, and Philly's ever-growing standing as a city on the rise, this is one of those infuriating Philly-is-worse-than-almost-everywhere-else moments.

Philly spends far less on parks and recreation than most major cities, said Kathryn Ott Lovell, the new parks and recreation commissioner.

"It's been that way for decades," she said. The damage piled up.

Chicago pays $174 per resident toward parks and rec services, she said. New York spends $162. We spend $66.

Trying to correct the imbalance between the attention paid to Center City and to the neighborhoods has so far been at the heart of Mayor Kenney's plans for his administration.

Last week, in an address to the Chamber of Commerce - a platform mayors typically use to address goals for Center City businesses - Kenney spoke at length about the needs of our neighborhoods. About how imperative it is to reinvest in our neglected recreation centers, libraries, and parks.

So far, Kenney is talking the talk, and backing it up by bringing on committed people like Lovell to shepherd progress.

But walk through places like McVeigh and Vare, and the other centers I visited this week, and you see endless reminders of how much work needs to be done.

At McVeigh, after-school instructors Sharon Stabler and Jackie Peters sat in a classroom, waiting for students to arrive, and fanning themselves from the stifling heat of the uncontrollable boiler. An ancient air-conditioning unit leaked water on their heads.

"This is the hottest room in the building," Stabler said.

McVeigh's director, Todd Colistro, gave me the rest of the tour: the shuttered TV lounge room that floods from the faulty pool pipes, the leaky weight room with its broken equipment, the swing set with no swings.

"And that's our building," he said.

At the Athletic Recreation Center in Brewerytown, Diane Scott, the after-school director who is also running the Black History Month talent show, said simply: "Struggle is not the word."

Scott and director Brian Sell showed me around the long-abandoned basement - the ghostly maze of locker rooms, kitchens, and rec rooms once used for children and now just gathering dust.

There is such potential.

Shame on us if we don't fulfill it.

mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759