A North Philadelphia playground now features brand new basketball hoops installed on a freshly painted court, affixed with the Sixers Youth Foundation logo. Outside of the fences sits a larger recreation area where the Hartranft community congregates, laughing and talking and eating water ice on a hot summer day.
It doesn’t look like the scene of a crime, where four years ago a 17 year old was gunned down on these same courts, one incident of violence in a neighborhood that has seen better days.
Maybe Thursday afternoon’s ceremonial ribbon cutting to open up these new basketball courts can provide that pivot point for folks who live near 8th and Cumberland, just a few blocks from the intersection of Germantown and Lehigh Avenue.
“I grew up here, I live right around corner,” says a guy named Lee, who came to watch the ceremony, which featured Elton Brand, World B. Free, the Sixers Dunk Squad, and other members of the organization. “I’ve been here since 1968. Do the math. It’s 2018 now. It’s a long time. I’m 52 now and I’m gonna be 53 this summer.”
Lee is the typical resident of these city blocks – born here, raised here, lived here his entire life. He’s a seen a lot in those 52 years.
“It’s good to see the community coming back together,” Lee says. “With the neighborhood and the violence that goes on around here, it’s great to get everybody back together, get the youth playing basketball, getting their league back together, things of that nature.”
There’s been no youth basketball league here, not since Robert Reid’s murder in August of 2014.
“People were coming every so often, maybe on the weekends, mostly Sunday,” Lee explains. “It was mostly grown folks though.”
There’s a sense of abandonment in these parts, echoed by Omar, who has also lived here since the late 1960s.
“Every zip code, every area had something going on. We had nothing.”
Omar rips off a list of groups that used to be active in the community – the YMCA, the Salvation Army, the Neighborhood Action Group. For whatever reason, that’s no longer the case, and kids, he says, had nowhere to go.
“The whole community center, we got these babies running around here,” says Omar. “I think us being out here right now is all about the children. It takes a village to raise a child, you know? We need this for the people. We’re very appreciative. And I’m not just talking about people I’m color, I’m talking about every nationality in this neighborhood. I’m been here since ’68 and I love my neighborhood.”
Now the courts are for everyone again, a collaborative revitalization project involving the Sixers Youth Foundation, Village of Arts & Humanities, LISC Philadelphia, and the Parks and Recreation Department.
Beyond redoing the basketball courts, the Sixers also created two signature programs at the neighboring John F. Hartranft School. That’s in addition to a “day of service” that deployed more than 125 staff members to the school in an effort to beautify the grounds and pack classroom kits for the students in preparation for this past school year.
“I can’t describe the energy that I feel and that everybody in the Sixers organization feels, and hopefully everybody here in the neighborhood,” said Amy Hever, the team’s Executive Director of Community Engagement. “This is a project that has been well over a year in the making. The court is really just one piece of a much larger engagement that has happened.”
That was my takeaway; that we’re not just looking at a generic renovation here. The neighborhood needed an injection and this is just a starting point for a greater rebuilding effort.
“It started with the court as an idea of, ‘how can we do something to just spark some additional attention here in this neighborhood?'” Hever added. “It’s a neighborhood that has certainly seen a lot of ups and downs, but there are a lot of people, young and old, kids and adults that want to see some great things happen. We’re just happy to be one small piece of that.”