BY AARON STELLA On July 25th, Friends of Pop’s Playground, the NKCDC (New Kensington Community Development Corporation), The Department of Recreation, Exit Skate Shop and the Fishtown and New Kensington community will be holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the official opening of a new skate park, Pop’s Skate Park, in Pop’s Playground, located at Hazard and Collins Streets in Fishtown. Until 2007, the playground has remained closed to the public on account of the city revoking its funding and Edward Griffith’s, the playground’s last caretaker, retirement in 1996. But with the combined efforts of the aforementioned groups to restore Pop’s Playground to its original glory, it is hoped that the addition of the new skate park will revitalize the surrounding businesses and serve as an anchor of hope and economic opportunity for Fishtown and New Kensington. It all started when NKCDC’s Laura Semmelroth approached Jesse Clayton — a representing rider for Exit Skate Shop, a skate supply and repair shop on Girard Avenue in Fishtown — with the idea of building a skate park in Pop’s Playground. “I didn’t even know [Pop’s Playground] existed until Laura approached me,” Clayton said, attesting to the park’s faded glory. Clayton designed the layout of the skate park and headed up its construction, which broke ground in March of 2008. The layout has since been expanded on, now including longer ramps and various structures for the pleasure of local skate enthusiasts, and perhaps the entertainment of curious onlookers from the community.
“Some of the skaters [from Exit Skate Shop] say that this will be best skate park they’ve seen in a long time,” Tom Potts, President of Friends of Pop’s Playground, said. Potts helped jumpstart the playground’s Saturday Art Camp in 2007 when the playground was re-dedicated to Black, Coyle and McBride, WWII vets and friends of Pop’s, or Art, at the time. The art camp gives kids from the neighborhood a chance to learns crafts and interact with other kids their own age of ethically diverse backgrounds, which Potts believes, continues to inspire further community unity, despite the community’s history of racial animosity. While restoring the playground posed its own problems, such as running off drug dealers and drifters who had inhabited the playground during it’s period of neglect, the addition of a skate park came with yet another set of difficulties, outside of funding, that needed confronting — not the least of which was the initial skepticism of the Friends of Pop’s Playground. “We weren’t so sure that we wanted skaters overrunning the playground,” Potts said, “Skaters have a bad rep, especially here in Philadelphia.” The surrounding community felt the same, and were collectively opposed to the idea of having a skate park installed in a playground much of them remember as and desire again to be a family-friendly area, which to them did not go hand-in-hand with skaters.
So the onus fell on Clayton, along with employees and affiliate skaters of Exit Skate Shop to dispel the stigma, employing a strategy often overlooked: door-to-door introduction. The skate adepts went around Fishtown and New Kensington intent on befriending the community of people who they hope would be their neighbors in recreation. “…And since [Clayton and his friends] are such good guys, the community has really taken a shine to them, and now thinks of them as their own,” Potts happily remarked. The community now expresses its approval with spontaneous donations and full-throated excitement for the new skate park. In conjunction with the opening of the skate park, Pop’s dogs, a dog park, is also opening on the Playground’s property. With this newfound enthusiasm, funding for Pop’s Skate Park was acquired. After donations from the local business, both monetary and material, the park received funding from Genworth Financial, Boost mobile, beef and beer cook outs held by FOP and a $10,000 grant from Tony Hawk. “The parents [of the community] think [the skate park] looks wonderful…and the Department of Recreation loves us. They believe that we are doing the best thing we can for the community,” Potts said, grateful for the all-around positive response. Everyone has high hopes for what the skate park will bring. But it seems that it’s not just the skate park, but the community itself that has chosen to unite, if nothing but for the sake of unity.