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Heaven in Hunting Park: Transformation at Critical Mass

Hunting Park is on fire. Not in the way you see in the news, which is often enough. But in a fervent, community building, spirited manner that seems the work of a larger-than-life force. Over the past five years, the North Philadelphia neighborhood, which runs from 5th to Broad Street, Erie Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard, has undergone a dramatic transformation.

According to the latest Philadelphia Police statistics, overall crime in the 25th District is down from 2010 to 2011. Total offenses dropped 7% in the same reporting period.

Millions of dollars have poured into Hunting Park from many directions. The showpiece of the area is an 87-acre park in the midst of a $21 million dollar transformation. Hunting Park is, according to Michael Diberardinis, head of Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, Philadelphia's second largest neighborhood park, outsized only by FDR Park in South Philadelphia. "It's a unique asset," explains Diberardinis. "There's nothing like it in that part of the city."

Diberardinis cites the park's size and diversity of activities, which include a recreation center, a swimming pool, basketball and tennis courts, baseball, football and soccer fields, playground areas, picnic areas and open space. There is even a historic house, unused, existing within the confines of the park, which belonged to William Penn's secretary, James Logan. The park was once home to the country's first horse trotting course.

Health Is About Body and Soul
Just a few blocks away at 4417 North 6th Street, the $6.5 million Esperanza Health Center officially opened its doors on Dec. 1. The light-filled facility is the third in the Esperanza system, which also runs centers at Kensington & Allegheny, and 5th & Cambria.

People are moving in and businesses are growing. According to the Hunting Park Strategic Neighborhood Plan 2015, prepared in October 2011, over half of residents surveyed have lived in the Hunting Park neighborhood less than 10 years, the majority having arrived less than five years ago.

Reflecting and magnifying a citywide trend, Hunting Park's population is on the rise, going from 13,000 to nearly 14,000 in the past decade. The neighborhood's population is 65 percent Hispanic and skews young, with a third of residents under 18, according to the latest U.S. Census. Estimated median household income is just $20,000, compared to the city average of $36,000.

You've Gotta Have Faith
Resident and activist Ryan Kellermeyer attributes the uplifting of the neighborhood to faith-based initiatives, many emanating from Spirit and Truth Fellowship under the leadership of Reverend Manuel Ortiz.

The evangelical Christian church has spawned seven offshoots. "It's what happens when a church decides to love a community. A more intentional spirituality, seeing our whole lives as an expression of faith in a specific place." Kellermeyer, who belongs to the newly formed church Grace and Peace, grew up in Indiana, coming to the Philadelphia area for college. He began going to Spirit and Truth, drawn in by the Sunday music, and soon purchased a house facing Hunting Park on 9th Street. He describes the intense criminal activity that would go on every night in the then overgrown park, providing details to make a vice squad blush. Drugs, prostitution and guys looking for other guys on the DL were Hunting Park mainstays.

Kellermeyer, who now works as Community Development Specialist for PA State Representative Tony Payton Jr., is one of dozens who are on the ground doing remarkable transformational work in the name of faith.

Painting Yourself Out of a Corner
There's Michaelanne Harriman, the Community Arts Director for Ayuda Community Center. "I want people to think about our neighborhood differently," says Harriman. She came to Ayuda five years ago after leaving her job as a scenic artist for People's Light and Theater in Malvern. Harriman runs workshops, has created several large scale public murals in  Hunting Park, and working with neighborhood kids, designed a series of banners that now hang on lightposts there. Her fifth annual Fall Youth Art Exhibition takes place on Thursday (Dec. 15) at the brand new Esperanza Health Center, just down the street from Ayuda.

Both Harriman and Kellermeyer credit Dr. John Perkins, founder of the Christian Community Development Association, a Chicago based agent of change founded on the three R's: Relocation, Redistribution and Reconciliation. "There is this notion of The Kingdom of God, a place where people and communities are whole and at peace," says Kellermeyer. "As stewards of that vision, it is the work of the church to bring it to life."

Planting the Seeds, Making It Rain
Perkins, who was in town for the dedication of the Hunting Park branch of Esperanza, says of his work, "Man was created in relationship. We were not meant to isolate ourselves. We were meant to enrich one another." The mission of the CCDA is to work with community groups all over the United States, doing something creative instead of just seeking superficial prosperity. "Let the church give the leadership, and the government comes in. The government has made us more dependent. We are in a moral crisis. The jails are full. Families are broken."

The local faith community brings the power of its influence to Hunting Park's revitalization. Pita Lacenski is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who is working on master's degrees in both social work and public administration. She is also Community Planning Director for Esperanza in Hunting Park, which is a separate community development organization that happens to have the same name as the health center. Thanks to a grant from Wells Fargo, Lacenski has done extensive research into her adopted neighborhood.  Among the many findings of the Hunting Park Strategic Plan was nearly half of all residents rate safety and cleanliness in the neighborhood as poor or very poor.

"Faith and social change go hand in hand," says Lacenski, whose upbringing was not religious. Lacenski served in the Peace Corps. "If you want to work with poor people, you have to understand faith. Religious organizations in this community are how people organize themselves. Government can provide the resources, but to work how poor people are already working, this is it."

Responding to a question regarding the basic mistrust of government among the underserved, Lacenski says, "Government has become about wealth. To use that wealth, you have to have a voice. If you're poor, you think the government doesn't represent you at all." The process of change is only powerful when there are people on the ground to uplift, and corporations and government to fund. "You need those two elements to initiate long lasting change."

Head to Toe Health Care
The Esperanza Health Center is a remarkable place. At its grand opening, the building, funded by The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is buzzing. Hundreds of people of all ages and races crowd in for tours. Esperanza expects to serve 7,000 low-income patients. Sixty to seventy health care staffers will be hired; 30 workers are already in place, according to Executive Director Susan Post.

The center aims to treat the whole person. In addition to full medical facilities with a lab and dispensary, Esperanza plans on social workers, dieticians, fitness counselors, spiritual advisors, a full gym that is also a community center, and a demonstration kitchen where neighbors can learn healthy cooking, and where light snacks and meals will be available.

The Esperanza kitchen will likely source its produce locally. A small community garden, up the block from Ayuda at 6th and Annsbury, supports 45 gardeners with no land of their own. And Hunting Park is slated to have an 11,000 square foot garden to address its status as a food desert. This summer, the Hunting Park CSA provided shares to the community, and The Food Trust ran a farmer's market every Saturday.

Open Space Game Changer
Instrumental in the park's improvement is the Fairmount Park Conservancy, under the leadership of Executive Director Kathryn Ott Lovell. "This is a game changer for the Conservancy," says Lovell. "The Conservancy has done high profile projects like The Fairmount Waterworks and the lighting of Boathouse Row. This is first time we looked at a park in a distressed community, and considered the impact of park revitalization on urban regeneration."

Through the community process of developing the Hunting Park Master Plan, Hunting Park United was formed to gather growing ranks of supporters. The master plan calls for $21 million in improvements, of which $3.5 million has been raised through government, corporate and private support. The Ryan Howard Family Foundation  took on the Hunting Park baseball diamond. The Philadelphia Eagles are donating money to renovate the football field for the Pop Warner Championship winning North Philadelphia Aztecs.

Billie Jean King and the Philadelphia Freedom will take on the revival of the tennis courts, featuring programming by Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education. The list of supporters is lengthy and impressive, and includes the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, members of City Council, and the Robert Wood Johnson and Kellogg's foundations. "There is a critical mass of investment and support in the community now. Everyone is taking a second look," says Leroy Fisher, head of Hunting Park United.

Things are already getting better for children here, according to  the strategic plan. Graduation rates at Esperanza Charter Academy have skyrocketed for Latino and black students, rising from below 50 percent to above 90 percent in the last five years. However, graduation rates at Olney East and Olney West still lag about 20 percentage points behind the citywide average, according to School District of Philadelphia figures.

On a Social Mission
The revitalization of Hunting Park's green space and neighborhood is not intended to draw an international crowd. There will be no campaign enticing tourists to North Philadelphia. This deeply collaborative effort has a simple goal: to better the lives of the people who live, work and play in Hunting Park. And that's all. It's taken the lifelong efforts of those who have chosen to make Hunting Park home, working from the inside, to put those millions to work.

"You have this enlivened community that began to see the potential rebirth of the park," says Mike Diberardinis of the reaction to the Hunting Park Master Plan. "They always believed in it, but then they began to believe it was possible." That excitement, says Diberardinis, opened the door for real community leadership and the quick movement from plan to action. Diberardinis was able to move state and city money into play.

Diberardinis sees the park as part of our social democracy that ensures equity and access, and his dream is to have top notch facilities in all neighborhoods in Philadelphia. "It doesn't matter how much you make, whether you just got here or have been here for 100 years. When you're in that park, everyone is your peer, and you are everyone's peer. Though it's hard to extend limited resources, it is our mission to continue to provide that equity. Social democracy lives in the idea of public space."

SUE SPOLAN is Innovation & Jobs News editor for Flying Kite. Send feedback here.


Susan Post, Excecutive Director of the Esperanza Health Center

Exterior of the Esperanza Center

Mosaic Mural at the Joy In The City Center

Spirit and Turth Fellowship Church

Church of Grace and Peace

Hunting Park Plan

Ryan Kellermeyer

Playground build from Nov. 4 with United Way, GMC and JAWS Youth Playbook

Hunting Park Community Garden Dedication in October with Mayor Michael Nutter (courtesy of Fairmount Park Conservancy)

All photographs unless noted by MICHAEL PERSICO
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