NOTE: THIS STORY HAS BEEN CORRECTED.
DRIVEN by frustration over the open-air drug dealing at abandoned Pop's Playground in Kensington, Laura Semmelroth walked into the EXIT Philadelphia Skateshop two years ago and asked owner Steve Miller, a total stranger, to build a skateboard park at Pop's.
Semmelroth remembers that Miller stared at her "like I was a crazy person."
She was wrong. Miller was staring at her like she was the cure for his own frustration over not being able to build a skate park at a rundown playground in his own Fishtown neighborhood.
This synchronicity between two stymied souls begat Pop's Skate Space, which opened last summer on Hazzard Street near Trenton Avenue - testimony to the do-it-yourself power of ordinary Philadelphians with extraordinary moxie.
As temperatures hovered a few degrees above freezing this week, endless summer continued at Pop's with dozens of young neighborhood kids and older teens - some of them in T-shirts, all of them oblivious to the cold - zooming over the surreal concrete moonscape of sculpted curves and mounds and hard edges as if it were July.
"There used to be needles and crack vials all over the place and people shooting up all day long," said Chester Rein, 68, who has a panoramic view of the playground from the small garage he runs across narrow Hazzard Street from Pop's.
Rein is so grateful that the new skate park turned a sordid drug market into a clean, cared-for, kid-friendly space that he lends the skateboarders his tools and helps them fix their equipment whenever they ask.
"Why should I mind?" he said with a shrug. "For years, I saw people shooting up over there. Now, I'm watching these great kids skateboarding all day long."
Two winters ago, when Semmelroth, an economic-development assistant with the New Kensington Community Development Corp., walked into the Northern Liberties skateboard shop, Miller wasn't sure Pop's Skate Space was doable.
"I had tried to get a skate park like Pop's going on Front Street near Ellen Street, on the border between Fishtown and Northern Liberties," Miller said.
"I grew up in that neighborhood. The Tiptop playground there has been abandoned for a long time and, frankly, looks like crap," he said. "The playground is connected to one street with about 15 houses on it, and 10 of those neighbors showed up at a community meeting and said, basically, they'd rather see the park rot than see skateboarders there."
Miller also attended meetings of the private, non-profit Franklin's Paine Skatepark Project — created in 2002 after Mayor John Street closed LOVE Park to skateboarders — which has spent years raising funds to build a $5 million skate park behind the Art Museum.
Seven years later: no skate park.
For Miller, the lesson from Tiptop and Franklin's Paine is: DIY: Do It Yourself.
He and fellow skateboarder Jesse Clayton - who has a masonry and carpentry background and who had long dreamed of designing and building his own park - met with Semmelroth at Pop's Playground.
"I said immediately, 'I'm in,' Clayton remembered. "I said, 'The chance to design and build a skate park is worth more than any paycheck. If I have to do it for free, I'll do it for free.' "
Turns out, he did, along with 100 neighborhood volunteers who put in 2,500 hours of labor with him, and a core group of skilled volunteers - many of them unemployed construction workers from the community.
"We couldn't have done this without Nick 'The Welder' Suozzo and Steve 'The Concrete Guy' Scipione and Chris 'The Brick Guy' Clark," said 46-year neighborhood resident Tom Potts, who is president of Friends of Pop's Playground, watching the kids whiz by in the cold afternoon sunlight.
"And John 'The Block Laying Guy' Fleming," added Semmelroth, "whose 6-year-old daughter, Jade, is out here skateboarding all the time. And Tom Martin, concrete guy and cheerleader. And Adam Fozien, Chris Picco and Adam Kaufman, extremely dedicated laborers."
The New Kensington CDC and the skateboarders raised $25,000 for materials. They held beef-and-beers at the neighborhood's VFW Post 22, where its commander, John Grant, donated the hall while Philadelphia Brewing Co. donated the beer and Primo Pizza across the street from Pop's donated the roast beef. They auctioned off 50 hand-painted skateboards from 50 of Miller's and Clayton's closest skating-artist friends. The Tony Hawk Foundation donated $10,000 and several thousand came from the Franklin's Paine Fund.
Four months into construction, Miller said, "the city's Recreation Department caught wind of what we were doing."
Semmelroth - who had seen the drug trade move in after the Street administration closed Pop's Playground and who was rejected by the Rec Department when she asked it to reopen Pop's for children's activities - was shocked when Mayor Nutter's Recreation Commissioner, Susan Slawson, welcomed a new skate park at Pop's with open arms.
"I was used to being the Screaming Mimi from the neighborhood," Semmelroth said, "you know, the wacko person who yelled to get little summer programs for kids in a playground the city abandoned. I wasn't used to the rec commissioner being supportive."
Something else has happened at Pop's in the seven months since it opened that has left the self-styled Screaming Mimi struggling for words.
"We have dads coming here to sit and watch their kids skate," Semmelroth said softly.
"We have fathers engaging with their sons," said Potts, the neighborhood resident. "Do you know how hard that is to accomplish these days?"
"It is something I have never seen before in this neighborhood," Semmelroth said. "The first time I saw it, I almost burst into tears."