Neighborhood pool sparks new optimism

Rebecca Jackson checks inventory at the family's Rita's water-ice franchise in Brewerytown with son Kenny. The business is taking part in a fund-raising drive to keep the neighborhood pool at Athletic Recreation Center open.
Rebecca Jackson checks inventory at the family's Rita's water-ice franchise in Brewerytown with son Kenny. The business is taking part in a fund-raising drive to keep the neighborhood pool at Athletic Recreation Center open.
Posted: April 26, 2010

As the morning rush fades, businesses along this stretch of Brewerytown yawn to life.

The ponytailed waitress at the corner diner serves a lone customer. Down the street, the owner of the vintage boutique separates handbags. Outside, Kenny Jackson pours soapy water on the concrete and scrubs the front of his family's fledgling water-ice business.

His wife, Rebecca, sits at a table, hugging their cheerful 9-month-old son, as she goes over the day's menu. A few passersby wish them "Good morning" by name.

"Part of buying the building," says Rebecca Jackson, 35, "was the gamble that this would turn into a neighborhood, a place where people could come, relax and enjoy."

In recent years, the area in and around this three-block strip of West Girard Avenue, from 2700 to 2900, has been inching from dismal to trendy. Abandoned houses, shuttered factories, and the saturation of neon-lit, greasy take-out joints have given way to promise.

Soon, instead of dark storefronts, the Jacksons' Rita's water-ice franchise will be book-ended by a coffeehouse and an Italian restaurant. A block north, near 29th Street, there is renewed talk among neighborhood and business types of turning a barren lot into a supermarket. Fliers advertise a spring concert to celebrate the avenue's "art, soul food and life."

Living here allows the Jacksons to balance running a business with their family life. "We don't live far from here," says Kenny Jackson, 36, "so it was important to stay in the neighborhood."

Married seven years, they are investing in their community in more ways than one. They volunteer at schools. They hire and mentor youth. And on Friday, they will open a series of fund-raisers to help keep the neighborhood pool at Athletic Recreation Center open this summer. As much as the area changes, the rec center remains.

That evening, 20 percent of the proceeds from their water ice (mango and Swedish fish are big sellers), gelati, and shakes will go to the city's Splash and Summer Fund, created to fill budget gaps to keep more pools open.

Last year, after launching the effort, the city opened 45 of its 72 outdoor pools, and in some neighborhoods raised questions of why one pool opened while another pool remained closed. This season, communities can target their fund-raising dollars toward their neighborhood pool.

"We're trying to create a place for everyone to contribute to something that we think is really emblematic of summer, which is our swimming pools," says Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis.

To keep all pools open, the city needs to raise an additional $600,000, says DiBerardinis, whose departmental budget is $1.7 million. So far, mostly through big companies, the city has collected $250,000. DiBerardinis says he believes it can raise the rest.

"If you say it, and you declare it, and put some joy into it, you have to believe it's going to happen," he says. "People like to respond to these kinds of challenges."

Pools are scheduled to begin opening in mid-June.

In neighborhoods throughout the city, forthcoming fund-raisers include a 3-on-3 men's basketball tournament, a talent show, a fish fry, a dinner social, a raffle for a 37-inch flat-screen TV, and, perhaps the most creative, cow-chip bingo.

For the Jacksons, even though diaper costs rival their utility bills, and Kenny Jackson was recently laid off from his job as a stock trader, joining the city's pool effort was a no-brainer.

His parents grew up in the neighborhood and played at the rec center at 26th and Master Streets, a half mile from their business. They have customers who thrive from the center's activities. And they imagine one day their son will, too.

"The rec center is the staple for the community," he says. "Lord knows with all the violence, it's a place for kids to go just to be kids. I don't know what the community would do if the recreation center weren't there."

Staffer Fred Jenkins feels the same way.

Athletic Recreation Center has been an anchor in its community for 93 years, and Jenkins has been a part of 44 of them.

He first came to the center when he was 10 years old, "a nuisance kid . . . running wild."

Summertime then, he says, offered two choices: gangs or the playground.

When his mother enrolled him in the day camp, "all of the time, I was consumed with getting to the swimming pool," Jenkins says. "I was at that pool seven days a week."

He never left.

At 15, Jenkins joined Athletic's famed boxing program. Three years later, the rec gave him his first job, helping with a summer program.

"It turned me around," he says. "It basically saved my life. Not being influenced by the coaches and staff at the rec center, I don't know where I'd be today."

Six days a week Jenkins can be found at the center, where he coaches boxing and T-ball and has his hand in pretty much everything.

As the weather warms, so will his presence. He says that during the summer the center's activities, which include dance, chess, karate, and - the biggest attraction - swimming in the pool's cool water, can draw more than 200 youths a day.

He sees the Jacksons' fund-raiser as a vital "partnership" in furthering the community.

"It's like a movie that a kid watches over and over," he says. "If they keep coming, they will be successful, move on with their lives, and become a positive influence."

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