Michael Vick donation will renovate N. Phila. field

A youth team practices on the football field in Hunting Park. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick donated $200,000 for renovation of the decrepit facility, part of an overall plan.
A youth team practices on the football field in Hunting Park. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick donated $200,000 for renovation of the decrepit facility, part of an overall plan. (JESSICA PARKS / Staff)
Posted: September 19, 2012

 Michael Vick wants to permanently stamp his name on Philadelphia - and a championship youth football team and the Hunting Park neighborhood will reap the benefits.

At an afternoon ceremony Tuesday, the Eagles quarterback, the Fairmount Park Conservancy, and others will hold a groundbreaking to revitalize the downtrodden football field in Hunting Park.

It will now be called Team Vick Field.

A $200,000 donation from the Team Vick Foundation is the final financial piece of a multimillion-dollar project, led by the conservancy and athletic organizations, to transform the park from a blighted crime haven to the centerpiece of a newly engaged neighborhood.

The football field is home to the 2004 Pop Warner champion North Philly Aztecs, but is in such bad shape that the team has to hold its home games at nearby Edison High School.

Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of the conservancy, said she was determined to get Vick involved after hearing him speak last year to students at nearby Simon Gratz High School. "I was completely blown away by this guy," she said. "Hunting Park is his story; this is the story of second chances. This is about the redemption and rebirth of a park and an entire community."

Vick said the park's potential was palpable. "That was mainly the reason why I committed to this project. I know what it's like to not have certain things," said the quarterback, who returned to pro football after his imprisonment on charges related to a dog-fighting ring. "Being able to relate to that made me more inclined to do something."

Work on the park began 18 months ago. The completed portions - a shiny new baseball field courtesy of the Phillies' Ryan Howard, dual-use tennis courts sponsored in part by retired star Billie Jean King, new playgrounds, a community garden, 24-hour lighting, and a farmer's market - have already changed the neighborhood atmosphere.

Jamal Bridgefourth, 34, was watching his son practice Friday night with the Aztecs. He said the park had changed "drastically" in recent years. "Used to be lots of crime, lots of prostitution," he said. "The neighborhood is changing, definitely."

 In the 1940s and '50s, Hunting Park was a "destination" space, said Ott Lovell. It was the site of family picnics, and childhood memories were forged on a grand carousel and bandstand. Over the succeding decades, the neighborhood and the park declined in tandem.

Not long ago, Hunting Park was a dangerous place to be caught after sundown, neighbors said. Grassy berms blocked police officers' view into the park, concealing the activities of drug addicts and prostitutes. The 87-acre park had no playground - only three swings, littered with the detritus of the previous night's illicit activities.

That began to change three years ago, when the Ryan Howard Family Foundation started scouting sites to build a baseball field. Hunting Park had the space and the need, but there were strings attached.

"Putting a baseball field here, in my words, was like lipstick on a pig," Ott Lovell said. She recalled city parks officials telling her: "You're going to have to do something really significant to lift up the whole park."

Howard's donation kick-started what became a comprehensive revitalization project. The conservancy held community meetings to draft a master plan. Millions of dollars flowed in from former Eagles player Ron Jaworski, the Eagles, local car dealers, and others to supplement city funds.

First, a playground was built and a weekly farmer's market was organzied. Then came the ball field. Then a community garden. Then another playground and 24-hour lighting around the perimeter. It tripled the park's energy bill, Ott Lovell said, "but you can't put a price on safety."

When it came time to repave the tennis courts, the conservancy called King. Through her foundation, King donated $50,000 for tennis programming, and the conservancy painted half of the courts red, white, and blue to match her tennis franchise, the Philadelphia Freedoms.

Meanwhile, 400 young football players were still practicing on a soggy, pockmarked field.

 The Aztecs have been based at Hunting Park for 19 years, but they've never been able to play games on their own field because the turf is so bad. During practice, the players and coaches have to work around it.

"They have ditches and there's some grass and some dirt. It messes me up sometimes," said Daquane Williams, 12. Players also have to pick their way around rocks and bottles. "When we crawl on the ground, you can get cut on your knee or something like that."

The field sits below ground level, atop an old swimming hole. When it rains, the field turns into a mud pit.

After the $1 million overhaul, Team Vick Field will be level, with a modern drainage system. It will have bleachers, goalposts, a scoreboard and a new track.

The team hopes to have its first true home games on the new field next year.

Looking forward, the conservancy plans to revamp the concession building and turn it into a healthy-foods market. Bike paths, more ornamental landscaping, picnic tables, a renovated bandstand, and a new recreation center are also planned. Michael DiBerardinis, deputy mayor for environmental and community resources, is optimistic that the transformation will continue now that the community has taken responsibility for the park.

"There's real data that the improved park that's heavily used is safer, and the areas around it are safer," DiBerardinis said. "Then there's the harder-to-define lift that a place like this gives a neighborhood. People are working together, getting to know one another, feeling more engaged in their community and more willing to give and volunteer. There are a number of things that I think I know in my soul. . . . I know it's real, I know it happens."

Ott Lovell agreed. "I think it started as open space, it started with a new baseball field," she said. But now, she said, they are testing a larger theory: "If you change the physical environment, and introduce some really critical programs, can you change a community? Can you make it better? Can parks catalyze social change in neighborhoods? We think it can, and we think it's happening right here in North Philadelphia."


Contact Jessica Parks at 215-854-4851 or jparks@philly.com.

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