Fairhill has smart vision (and backing) for an underused park.

So why so much initial resistance from the city?

On a recent Thursday afternoon, there were few signs of civic life at Fotterall Square Park, a vast green space in North Philadelphia featuring an abandoned baseball diamond, a neglected playground, a trio of basketball courts, and a whole lot of grass.

The park is located in the shadows of PHA’s Fairhill Towers high-rise apartments on one side and elevated regional rail tracks on the other, bounded by Cumberland and York streets to the north and south.

In the days of old, when neighbors savored the chance to congregate publicly and elders demanded respect for their community, this was a vibrant gathering space.

On this day, a handful of people sat along a wall along the park’s northernmost side while two others took seats on park benches. A police cruiser and permanent Philadelphia Housing Authority security truck sat within eyeshot.

That scene is a source of frustration for those working to revive the economically depressed, violence-prone neighborhood.

Answers don’t come easily when it comes to addressing the issues of deep poverty, palpable desperation, feelings of civic abandonment and headline-making violence, like a recent weekend when six people, including a 14-year-old boy, were shot a mile away in the same Fairhill ZIP Code.

People who live in, and care about, the 19133 want those who call the area home to have the opportunity to both survive and thrive.

Instead of giving up, they’ve spent a couple years trying to convince the city to help restore the 100,000 square-foot park to its full promise.

In their ideal world, Fotterall would become a place that brings residents – from next door and from other parts of the neighborhood – together. They’d do so, in part, by offering recreational activities for youths desperate for options to help them avoid the traps that consumed many of those who’ve come before them.

Instead of headlines about shootings, they envision a world with soccer fields, baseball diamonds, basketball courts, cleanup days and community festivals.

They see families walking from blocks away to watch and cheer as the neighborhood youths compete.

They want to instill life into a neighborhood in need of CPR, and their efforts to do so have faced numerous delays, but could finally be showing signs of promise.

Very few people know that better than Reggie Johnson, a 31-year-old community activist who grew up on the 18th floor of the high rises across the street.

He remembers local leaders taking care of the park when he was little. When that generation died off, the collective will to nurture the public space gradually dissipated. As a result, the community essentially ceded its power.

Johnson is among several locals – many young, and a few old – toiling to resuscitate various facilities scattered across Fairhill. This park could be the crown jewel of their efforts.

Sure, working out their geographic grudges in a positive sense is part of it, but getting neighbors to unite as one is the subconscious hope.

“We’re just stuck. We have a lot of beautiful things going on in this community because of young black leaders rising up, but we don’t have the resources that groups in other neighborhoods may have,” said Johnson, who’s part of the tiny Friends of Fotterall Square Park group. “For us people coming up, for the next generation, it’d mean everything to us for this park to be saved.”

Then, he shared the underlying sense of frustration for many here.

“We have people trying to divide and conquer our neighborhood, but we need to take that power back. Fotterall was great when I was little. Now, it’s a ghost town out there. It’s nothing, bro,” he said. “When you see playground renovations somewhere, it uplifts everybody. It helps more than individuals, but the whole community responds.”

It was that spirit that led community leaders to meet with Philadelphia Weekly to talk about the hurdles they’ve faced in getting traction to restore Fotterall, and share the hope that the tide could – against all odds – be changing.

When PW reached out to city officials to ask what they can do to help, their responses – though unfulfilled promises at this point – led many of the neighborhood leaders to hope that they’re finally being heard.  After years of promises brought about theories that, in some cases, border on conspiratorial, they’ll need to see some action before believing things will finally change for the better.

PROMISES NOT KEPT

A half of a mile north of Fotterall Square sits a large grass field, which is part of the 12th and Cambria Recreation Center. Since lights illuminate that patch of land, it serves as a practice field for the A.C. Fairhill (ACF) soccer program .

ACF is a volunteer-led, grassroots program that aims to expose neighborhood youths to a sport that, despite dropping numbers within city programs, could be their way out.

There are no goals or lines on the field. That means their matches take place miles away, which means parents, friends and supporters have a difficult time watching the local boys and girls play.

Around the time when Fotterall sat essentially vacant last month, a group of community activists headed to that field to discuss – with ACF’s Dominique Landry – their vision for a better future.

The group included Reggie Johnson, Roosevelt Davis of the Hartranft Playground Alliance (HPA), Norman “Sabu” Wooten of the 12th Street Advisory Council, and 37th Ward committee people Denise Armstrong and ward leader El Amor M. Brawne Ali.

“People have long made promises they didn’t keep,” said Brawne Ali. “When you just have two sets of eyes there, they can get away with it. Instead of two sets of eyes, we want to have 20 sets of eyes on it. There haven’t been enough squeaky wheels necessary to get it done in this neighborhood for a long time.”

The setting was perfect because Landry has been a driving force behind the community’s efforts to reclaim Fotterall.

Two years ago, the program – and the Fairhill Investment Group Development Corp., which aims to blend community activism with economic investment – proposed buying the park to establish a home field for A.C. Fairhill while incorporating other facets that would benefit the community as a whole.

The pitch to the city was for a self-sustaining effort to move operations to the park without the need for public monies.

“This is a macro thing,” Landry said as an ACF volunteer, in town for physical-therapy rotation from Duke University’s medical school, led a group of nearly 20 children through pre-practice calisthenics nearby. “It’s not just about soccer. The field is a microcosm of something we wanted to do.”

Along with A.C. Fairhill, the 12th Street Advisory Board and HPA – which are working to revitalize a decrepit recreation center across the neighborhood – decided they had more strength in numbers.

That merger of sorts could finally be paying off, both in getting the attention of elected officials and not buying into projects that would benefit some – but not all – of the groups.

A LONG, CONFUSING PATH

The path here has been littered with concerns that they weren’t being heard at all.

About a year and a half ago, they took their plans to revitalize Fotterall to City Council President Darrell Clarke, who represents the neighborhood as part of this fifth district.

Landry soon find out that it wouldn’t be an easy sell, and much of it came down to money and theories about outside interests in the area outweigh the wishes of locals.

Like, for instance, the meeting to which he wasn’t invited when Clarke’s office shared a vision for the park with other groups, a $2.5 million vision that didn’t include a soccer field.

“When they put the plans on the table, some people didn’t know what was going on. They had a soccer field in the middle of the baseball field,” he said. “They wanted HPA to say ‘no soccer field’ at a meeting I wasn’t invited to. I think it was a ploy to hear the community talk about it without any reference point, but it backfired, because we’re so close.”

To residents, Fotterall is a gathering place they’d like to collectively reclaim. To developers, it’s a prized gem at a time when PHA purportedly moves toward demolishing one of the two Fairhill Apartments towers and build new low-rise family housing on the 4.5-acre site.

“It felt like we became a monkey wrench in bigger plans that the city has for that area,” Landry maintained during a recent interview. “The park we want to use is right in front of that [potential development]. We felt that it made sense because they wanted to turn it into a nice, clean park for the townhomes they want to put there.”

Despite the fact that there are only single-family homes on one side of the park, away from where the soccer field would be, concerns about lights at the field were cited as a worry for those looking to build $250,000 townhomes in the city’s poorest ZIP Code.

Before long, they learned of another twist: the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and Rebuild program, which uses funding from the soda tax to invest in community facilities, had an interest in Fotterall Square.

“When we came to them, they had no plan,” Landry said of Parks and Rec. “When we presented our plan – architectural plans, and information from a zoning attorney and general contractor on our board – we said, ‘This is what we want to do.’ We’re not trying to change the zoning. We just want to activate Fotterall as an athletic stage.

“We were never asking them for money. We were asking for permission to reinvest in space that never had investment. We wanted to buy it, but they said we couldn’t. Then we asked if we could lease it, and they said we had to go through the Friends of Fotterall group.”

So, Landry et al set out to get community support for their plans, which Reggie Johnson of the park-friend’s group vocally supports. They have pages of signed petitions and video testimonials that show those who live in the neighborhood support their vision.

“We wanted to invest money in the park, revamp it, turn it into Madison Square Garden for North Philly, where people can come watch kids play soccer and baseball,” he explained.

There are bigger-picture motivations, as well.

“This community is really violent. Just this summer, there was a shooting in the square. A young woman was killed on Ninth Street,” Landry said. “We’ve seen how A.C. Fairhill has affected 12th and Cambria.”

When the program was getting started four years ago near 12th and Cambria, the field was vacant but for ATVs tearing up the grass or guys smoking on the field.

In year No. 1, Landry recalls a few shootings occurring nearby while the kids were practicing.

“Over time, those things haven’t happened. Guys don’t even smoke near the field while we practice. They go across the street or down a block,” he shared.

“Last year, half a dozen guys came up with dirt bikes, while we had practice,” he continued. “I went to them and told them we’re done in about 30 minutes. They said, ‘We know. We’re just going to wait until y’all finish.’ They wound up leaving before we finished, but there was a time they would have just rode in the outfield, anyway.”

And while these claims may not necessarily impact crime data, it certainly speaks to a respect for what’s being down there.

“But that doesn’t do anything for the whole ZIP Code,” Landry said. “Our whole premise is making things better for the whole ZIP Code, not just one little pocket of it.”

DELAYS BEGET CONSPIRACY THEORIES

As good as the pitch seemed, more hurdles would surface. They would leave locals questioning just what the heck is going on.

A Parks and Rec official revisited concerns this March about needing to speak with the community – one which already granted its blessings to the project – about potential disruptions, including lights, which haven’t drawn complaints from neighbors near the practice field.

“They’re not beaming down on the houses, they just keep the field illuminated,” Landry said. “But, the pushback was still about the lights.”

In that initial plan, and Rebuild’s early proposals, much of the money would go to making the park ADA compliant, as it’s elevated and the only entrance doesn’t involve a flight of steps.

“These aren’t mutually exclusive things. Why can’t we put a soccer field there, and have home games and practices under the lights, while they fix up the park and do their thing?” he asked.

Adding fuel to the conspiratorial fire was the fact that someone in the neighborhood nominated A.C. Fairhill for a $150,000 Knight Foundation grant meant to “go to people volunteering to do good in their communities.”

They didn’t win.

Instead, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell and the Reading Terminal general manager did, and an official with the Knight Foundation would join the Parks and Rec staff shortly after the decision was announced.

“That would’ve been a great opportunity that would have assisted us to do what we want to do in Fairhill,” Landry said. “How can the Knight Foundation award a city official a private grant, and someone running the organization now works for that public official?”

Lilly Weinberg, Knight Foundation director, noted that the call for nominations “generated more than 2,000 candidates” that were whittled down to seven in a “fair process.”

As if that wasn’t enough, in June, Rebuild announced that the city was teaming with the Philadelphia Union and Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association for a $3 million, five-year plan to build two signature fields and 15 “mini-pitches” across the city. It was a widely celebrated announcement, but one that didn’t sit entirely right with the Fotterall-rehabilitation folks.

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“How can the Knight Foundation award a city official a private grant, and someone running the organization now works for that public official?”

— Dominic Landry, founder of the AC Fairhill youth soccer program whose program missed out on a $150,000 grant that was awarded to Parks and Rec commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. Months later, Patrick Morgan, a former program director with the Knight Foundation joined the senior leadership of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

 __

“Did they take our plan and pitch it to the Union to get more money?” is what AC Fairhill volunteers were left asking themselves.

From April until PW started making calls for this story in late September, the discussions between the city and ACF halted. Still, both sides pushed forward, albeit separately.

When the city pulled permits for block parties last year out of fears for community violence, ACF and HPA hosted a community day at Fotterall in June. There was basketball, soccer, baseball and free barbecue and smoothies.

You know what wasn’t there?

“Two to three hundred people, and there wasn’t one incident, or one argument. That’s the visual that we’ve been trying to tell Parks and Rec, that it could be like this every weekend,” Landry said. “Anytime there’s an event like this, the cops either shut it down or they’re out in full effect. Our events don’t need that.

“So many people came up saying, ‘thank you, this is our block party now.’ People were scared about what’s going on there. But, this was such a different vision.”

THE SODA TAX AS FINANCIAL SAVIOR

For all of the angst, desperation and suspicions, it seems as if the city has started to embrace the locals’ vision for the park.

While nothing has been finalized, various city and private entities have told Philadelphia Weekly that the fears were understandable yet not entirely valid, and that they’re eager to move forward with a plan that will give the community what it wants.

They chalked up much of the frustration to poor communication and impatience with a time-consuming process.

Maita Soukup, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and Rebuild, said the department has eyed Fotterall Park “as a focal point for improvement for at least six years.”

It wasn’t until the Rebuild money came along that they were plausibly able to afford it. Now that it’s been selected as a Rebuild site, “those stars aligned in a good way,” she said.

From Rebuild’s perspective, it’s a matter of balancing the needs of the community and the activities in the park.

“A year ago, A.C. Fairhill approached us with big plans for the park, and we want to invest in soccer there,” she said. “The PPR asked a design consultant to carve out space for a soccer field in the renovations.”

City officials dismissed concerns about developers coming in and hijacking the Fotterall revitalization as “unfounded.”

A Temple University spokesman said the same of rumors that the school could revamp the towers and make them its own, as well. As for PHA, spokesman Kirk Dorn noted that economic constraints are hindering their plans to renovate the site across 11th Street from the park, but that they hope to do so in the future.

“PHA has set plans in motion to redevelop the site, which is 56 years old and needs extensive repairs,” he said. “An independent engineering study determined that the site has over $30 million in immediate needs and over $81 million over the next 20 years. PHA does not receive adequate funding to address all of those needs.”

Dorn estimated that it will take between 12 and 15 months to submit applications and secure HUD approval, which would lead to current residents being located.

“I should also mention Fairhill residents have expressed overwhelming support to redevelop the site,” he said.

Efforts to restore the park across the street would get started before that happens, bringing about what Soukup of Rebuild calls “a good news story.”

Despite all the drama of the past several years, Parks and Recreation has “adjusted site designs for Fotterall Square to accommodate baseball, basketball, and soccer,” she said.

Residents and those interested in the project should see those soon, but was unable to publicly share the specifics until locals are presented with them. It will represent a case study in how the Philadelphia Beverage Tax “is providing critical resources to revitalize neighborhood spaces and provide young people and residents with the high quality facilities they deserve,” according to Soukup.

“The updated designs are nearly ready to be shared with the community,” she told Philadelphia Weekly earlier this month. “Parks & Recreation and Rebuild look forward to meeting with residents to share the designs for major improvements coming to Fotterall Square. The community here has poured so much time, attention, and care into this park over the years.”

The effort now has the optimistic support of Clarke, the council president within whose office several of the troubling meetings had been previously held.

“He is very optimistic about the plans for the park moving forward, including for a soccer field and amenities that the community wants,” said the council president’s spokesman, Joe Grace. “It’s moving forward, and has no connection with what’s going on with the (Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority or PHA.) It’s taken a while, but he’s positive about it moving forward, and it will be a great thing for the community.”

THE SQUEAKY WHEELS ARE FINALLY HEARD

Today, it seems like the squeaky wheels that Brawne Ali mentioned are finally being heard.

They include Roosevelt Davis of the HPA, who was at AC Fairhill practice with a group of community-minded leaders.

He vouched for the Fotterall effort as something “that will keep the kids safe and out of trouble.”

“We have to do something, because if we do nothing, we’ll just be sitting ducks, too. If we don’t come together to accomplish something, it’ll look just like this 20 years from now, too.”

State Reps. Danilo Burgos and Malcolm Kenyatta also spoke about the importance of breathing new life into a neighborhood in dire need of it.

Burgos saw sports playing a vital part for kids in his community, and public schools, while growing up near the neighborhood. While he hadn’t heard about the intricacies of the Fotterall drama, he noted that it’s “a public space not being utilized to its full potential.”

“We have young men from the community who are willing to be mentors but they don’t have the adequate means to do so, and money is part of it,” he said. “It so frustrating when you hear things are coming and then you sit around asking yourself, ‘when is it coming?’

“Today, we have people believing in the rebirth of that area, and it’s refreshing to hear that the city is going to be making it a priority. It’s possible to do positive things because that gives less opportunity for evil to reign.”

For his part, Kenyatta lauded the work and persistence that the AC Fairhill volunteers have put into making the world a better place for the youths in the program.

“It’s great what they’re doing to engage youths in a sport that’s not synonymous with North Philly,” he said. “A lot of times when we have these conversations, politicians and developers don’t think about the people, and what those renovations would mean to them. But this would be a safe haven for children in the community.”

Kenyatta’s discussion about Fotterall had a tone of urgency.

“I think we have to make this happen,” he said. “I stand ready to do what I can to bring resources back from Harrisburg to help programs like this.”

As for Landry, frustration has given way to guarded optimism, as he’s heard similar positive momentum mentioned before.

“We weren’t coming to them with our hand out, but we kept hitting our head against the wall for years, even when they knew what we were trying to do,” he said. “To be able to fight for our community and have the city respond to that effort is promising, but still only a start.”

He spoke about how the soccer program enables him and the other leaders to represent the neighborhood both at home and when the team goes out to face teams outside of the city.

“The whole point of the academy is to provide opportunities to families here that would otherwise not be available,” he said, reiterating that all they ever asked of the city was the right to manage the Fotterall Square Park space. “The larger goal is to show that the only way communities of color, here, can grow and change is if we’re allowed to be the leaders of our own change, and trusted to carry it out.”

In other words, he’s hopeful that the local battle gets to a place where it provides a blueprint for those in other communities across the city, even if he won’t be completely sold until he sees a lease agreement or written permission to use and manage the soccer field there.

“Hopefully, if the field happens, it will encourage other members of our neighborhood and neighborhoods around the city to voice their wants and needs, as well,” Landry said. “But, it’s still just the beginning, and the jury is still out on how this will actually turn out.”

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  • Brian Hickey Headshot

    After stops at daily newspapers in Florence, S.C. and Atlantic City, Brian Hickey started his Philadelphia journalism career at Philly Weekly in 2000. Poached by CityPaper two years later, he’s since worked at Deadspin, WHYY and PhillyVoice. He’s covered just about every topic imaginable – suburban sex dungeons, the SEPTAPillar guy, racist police-officer social-media posts, […]