Even as Lawncrest, the Philadelphia neighborhood, has transformed over the past half century, Lawncrest the city rec center has — for better and for worse — remained largely the same.
A mash-up of two adjacent neighborhoods, Lawndale and Crescentville, Lawncrest is sandwiched between the neglected urban expanse of North Philadelphia and the near-suburban neatness of the city’s far northeast. Best known for hosting one of the city’s longest-running July Fourth celebrations, the neighborhood also gained a reputation for violence after a string of murders in 2014. Incomes have declined; poverty is rising. Nail salons, day care centers and delis plod redundantly down the Rising Sun Avenue commercial corridor, while the neighborhood lacks for a convenient grocery store. An aging library sits at one end of the strip, next to the rec center and a dusty double-wide trailer that serves as an outpost of the DA’s office.
But besides the pool (installed in the 1960s), and the playground (replaced two decades ago, now dilapidated), and the community garden (just a few years old), the Lawncrest Recreation Center is almost exactly the same today as it was when it was built in the 1940s. It’s still at the heart of the neighborhood, still much beloved, even as neighbors use the same old rec infrastructure in new ways. Baseball has waned in popularity, so the center’s four diamonds don’t get the use they once did, but the impromptu football field carved out from their intersecting outfields bustles with leagues for every age. Hockey is rarely played in the walled-in outdoor rink anymore, but teams largely composed of Latin American immigrants play weekend soccer tournaments there. Teens cluster, too, in the shade of the library, smoking illicit cigarettes and charging their phones at an outdoor outlet.
Maintenance, though, hasn’t kept pace with need. The gym roof leaks, sometimes so badly games have to be canceled midway through. The wall around the pool is crumbling. All but two of the swings are missing; playground equipment lies snapped and unusable on the ground. The center is dark, crowded, hot and not ADA-friendly. On a busy Saturday, cheerleading practice and dance class fill the multipurpose rooms; zumba has been relegated to a hallway. Where there are no picnic tables, neighbors grill and picnic on a weedy lawn, paying no mind to drifts of litter collecting by tree trunks.
Less than 2 miles away, the rec center at Sturgis Playground gleams like new. Also located in the 9th District, in a neighborhood similarly posed in a holding pattern between gentrification and decline, Sturgis’ rec center was rebuilt from the ground up in 2013, after nearly a decade of fierce advocacy by neighbors Jeff Hackett and Frances McDonald. Once so underused the city threatened to close it, the center today is a thriving town square for the neighborhood of modest single-family homes that surround it, especially popular with parents and children in the evening hours after work and school. Hackett and McDonald credit the rebuild for the transformation, and something else: their own watchful presence, their enforcement of a moral code. “We walked the playground, we stopped the profanity, we stopped the smoking ourselves, we didn’t wait for anybody to do that,” says Hackett.