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In West Philly, a playground built for school and community

'Greening Lea' project looks to fill a neighborhood need for green space.

Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

There’s at least one new bright spot in a district unsettled by budget cuts, lawsuits, layoffs, and surprise resignations: Lea Elementary has a new playground.

“We’re excited for the work that’s been done, and the work to come,” said Amara Rockar of the West Philly Coalition for Public Schools, just before cutting the ribbon that officially opened Lea’s colorful new play structure to the public.

As happy students clambered about on its monkey bars and sliding poles, Rockar said the installation of the structure was an “important first step” toward transforming Lea’s one-acre asphalt lot into a tree-lined green space that can serve as a park for residents of all ages.

“The community wanted to see this kind of thing happen,” she said.

The opening marks the end of a year-long effort to bring the structure to Lea. It was originally installed in 2010 at nearby Wilson Elementary, with support from the Cole Hamels Foundation and the Spruce Hill Community Association. When Wilson closed, Lea was a logical next destination.

The District paid the moving costs. A $64,000 donation from the Philadelphia Water Department created a colorful, permeable rubber surface for it to stand on.

And when $3,000 was needed to complete the work this summer, Lea supporters raised it from community members and businesses in just eight days, said Maurice Jones, head of Lea’s Home and School Association and vice president of the Garden Court Community Association.

“This is fantastic,” Jones said. “The kids love it. A lot of them are just learning about who actually did this. They’re coming up to me and saying, ‘They did this for us?’ And I said, ‘Yes, they did this for you.’”

Lea supporters are still raising money for the big job of transforming the remaining space – a $400,000 project known as “Greening Lea.” They said that about three-quarters of that money has already been raised, including $242,000 from the Philadelphia Water Department, $10,000 from PECO, and another $10,000 from community partners and over 100 individual donors.

The greening project will leave much of the large asphalt play space intact – Lea’s lot is already well-used for basketball and bicycling – but will add groves of trees and landscaped “rain gardens” that will help manage stormwater runoff while also creating pleasant, shady areas around the lot’s perimeter.

“All the water that falls is going to be piped into underground storage under the trees, and it will flow into the rain gardens,” said Jen Martel, a Lea parent and co-chair of Greening Lea.

Martel said Lea supporters hope to complete the fundraising in time to start construction this spring, so that the transformed space can be ready by next September.

The new play space will help fill a need in a densely populated neighborhood whose closest parks are about a mile away. “There was a void of green space,” said Jones.

By this time next year, Jones hopes to see not only kids on the playground, but older people relaxing in the shade, playing chess or making music – “all the things that happen in Clark Park,” he said.

He also hopes to see the school itself continue to improve, despite the challenges of the cash-strapped District. Just four weeks into the job, new principal Jennifer Duffy has put the place on an even keel, Jones said, and he’s optimistic about her leadership.

“This is as good as I’ve felt in the six years I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ve always been very positive, but it’s really over the top now.”

As Jones spoke, Duffy and her staff were behind him, lining up the students for an orderly procession into the building.

“When she raises her hand, everybody gets quiet,” he said. “It’s a simple change of tone. What’s happening out here is what’s happening in the school.”

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