Philadelphia kids feel safer with Kensington’s new summer programming

“They should put a fence around the park and give *us* the keys,” said one fourth grader.

Kids play in the McPherson Square Park playground during Playstreets, with Playstreet captains (in red) helping out

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Each day this summer, the park and library at McPherson Square in Kensington transforms into a safe space for kids, complete with cooking classes hosted by the North Kensington Community Development Corporation and a new outpost of the city’s Playsteets program.

Though the public park has always had some level of summer youth programming, this is the first year it has been transformed with new signage and play equipment, designed by local nonprofit TinyWPA.

Neighborhood parents seem to like the program, which sections off the playground to create a space for children to play freely and safely — something often lacking in the area around McPherson Square.

“Many of these blocks have drug problems, so it’s not safe for Playstreets to be held on those blocks,” said neighborhood parent Theresa Malone.

Malone’s daughter Anastasia, a rising fourth grader, said she feels safer because of the new programming.

“Especially now that the fence is around the playground,” Anastasia said. “It keeps people out — they should put one around the whole park and give us the keys!”

The neighborhood is considered a gun violence “hotspot,” which means it consistently contributes disproportionately to Philadelphia’s shooting statistics. Twenty-five of the blocks that saw 10 or more shootings during 2021 are in Kensington, and the area has some of the lowest median household incomes in the city. The summer programming for kids is a bright spot.

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation is operating its pop up PlayPark program in three Kensington locations this year, said department spokesperson Maita Soukup: McPherson Square, Hissey Playground, and Harrowgate Park. They’re possible because of a partnership with the Free Library, the PPD, the Managing Director’s Office, and the city’s Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP), she said.

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In addition to the snacks offered by the Playstreets initiative, McPherson Square Library also offers daily free lunches for kids.

It’s run by a woman the kids affectionately call “Miss Maria the Lunch Lady.” She hands out food and even sends home extra meals for hungry siblings. Over 16% of School District of Philadelphia households experienced food insecurity during the 2020 to 2021 school year.

“I’m just trying to do my part,” said Bryan Belknap, the after-school program coordinator at McPherson Library. He’s worked there since 2015 and has a hand in creating its annual summer programming. Belknap says the Playstreets program averages around 40 youth a day, and that participation in the after-school program ebbs and flows with the academic year on top of library closures.

“If the library was ever to shut down, a lot of our young men would die or get wrapped up in something bad,” said Malone.

Scroll for a look at kids and adults enjoying McPherson’s summer offerings.

Bryan Belknap, McPherson Square Library after-school program coordinator, pushing Jolissa on the swing
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A youngster playing on the ropes during Playstreets
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Jozephina going down the slide with her brother Josiah
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Getting snacks from Miss Maria the Lunch Lady
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Staff from the New Kensington Community Development Corporation prepare to lead cooking Class
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A young chef prepares for cooking class in the teen section of the library
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Library after-school coordinator Bryan Belknap making slime with the kids
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Playing in the McPherson Square playground during 'The Block Gives Back' event
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Adults taking advantage of the playground equipment during 'The Block Gives Back' event
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The McPherson Square playground fence with (R to L) Theresa Moreno, Riley, Ezekiel, Jozephina, Josiah, Corey, Mason, Latiff Amar, Jamil, Emory, Antonio, Amaya, and Anastasia
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McPherson Square Park and Library
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