Fight for Mayfair Memorial Playground inspires neighborhood's rebirth

COURTESY OF THE MULVENNA FAMILY After Kaylee Mulvenna tripped in a hole at Mayfair Memorial Playground, her mom, Melinda, became a neighborhood activist.
COURTESY OF THE MULVENNA FAMILY After Kaylee Mulvenna tripped in a hole at Mayfair Memorial Playground, her mom, Melinda, became a neighborhood activist.
Posted: May 29, 2014

TWO MONTHS before her second birthday, Kaylee Mulvenna was toddling toward the slides at Mayfair Memorial Playground when she tripped on a hole in the safety matting and fell headfirst into the ladder's metal stairs.

"I was afraid she'd broken her eye socket," said Melinda Mulvenna, Kaylee's mom, remembering the 2008 accident. "She ended up with a bad shiner. Things could've been a lot worse."

The playground is on Lincoln High property, so Mulvenna pleaded with Philadelphia School District officials to replace the hole-riddled matting before another child got hurt. No money, they told her.

Mulvenna persisted until, one day, she saw that the whole playground had been torn out, leaving only the ragged remains of metal pipes that had anchored equipment.

Standing there stunned, Mulvenna did not realize she was looking at the catalyst for the grass-roots, sweat-equity rebirth of Mayfair Memorial Playground - and then, of Mayfair itself.

A small, fiercely committed core of neighborhood activists rose up from the ruins of the playground, weaned themselves from relying on money from state Rep. John Perzel, turned the Mayfair Civic Association from a lamb into a lion, and created a blueprint for rallying a community around its children.

Refusing to accept defeat, Mulvenna turned to a neighbor's son, Joseph DeFelice, a local lawyer who volunteered at the Mayfair Civic Association.

"If the playground had fallen into disrepair in 2004," DeFelice told the Daily News, "we would've gone to John Perzel and he would've said: 'How much will it cost? OK. Let's rebuild it.' "

During Perzel's 30 years as a state representative from Mayfair, he funneled millions of dollars into a new community center and other big-ticket neighborhood projects, especially during his reign as the powerful speaker of the house from 2003 to January 2007, DeFelice said.

"But the playground was suddenly torn down in 2008, a year after John lost the speakership," DeFelice said. "His indictment [on corruption charges] in 2009 and his losing the election in 2010 didn't affect the playground. His losing the speakership did. In hindsight, no slight to John, it affected the playground positively."

But not immediately. When DeFelice called a playground fundraising meeting in 2009, only three moms with very young children showed up.

Two of the core four - Mulvenna and Dana Lambie, a director of the neighborhood's family-owned Lambie Funeral Home - became co-chairs of the Friends of Mayfair Memorial Playground.

"I was a stay-at-home mom with a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old who loved the playground," Lambie said. "I'd pack a snack, put my 1-year-old in the stroller, and we'd go there to play. Then, one day, our little playground was ripped out. I thought, 'We've got to get the playground back.' So I've had my feet in this since the beginning."

Mia Hylan, who was home with her toddler and pregnant with her second child, joined the playground crusade and has since gone on to work with everything and everyone that builds her neighborhood.

"I'm Miss Mayfair," Hylan said, laughing.

"The four of us," DeFelice said, "plus our significant others and some volunteers put 'Help us rebuild Mayfair Memorial Playground' envelopes in people's doors from Rhawn Street to Magee Avenue, between Frankford Avenue and the Boulevard. People were giving $5, $10 apiece. We raised $8,000."

But they needed $80,000 for playground equipment plus an additional $20,000 for the safety surface and other essentials.

So they turned the playground-less lot on Rowland Avenue near Vista Street into an Easter egg hunt and, in October, a Halloween pumpkin-decorating "Spooktacular" for hundreds of Mayfair kids - and raised thousands from local business sponsorships and a small admission fee.

In summer 2009, DeFelice became president of the moribund Mayfair Civic Association. "I was all by myself - no board, $2,000 in debt," DeFelice said. "I called a meeting of a few core people and said: 'Who wants to be vice president? Great! You're the new vice president.' Jim Ortlieb said, 'Frankford Avenue's getting pretty dirty.' I said, 'Jim, you're the new head of the cleanup committee.'

"The playground project jump-started the civic association," DeFelice said, and the civic association jump-started the Mayfair May Fair, which has grown from a sidewalk sales event in 2008 to this year's massive community festival that drew 3,000 people to Frankford Avenue, blocked off from Cottman to Bleigh.

The same-day sixth annual Mayfair Fallen Heroes Run & Walk has grown into a major fundraiser for the Hero Thrill Show Fund, which provides college scholarships for children of Philadelphia cops and firefighters who were killed or disabled in the line of duty.

Finally, in summer 2011, after years of hoping for a miracle, the Mayfair stalwarts learned that Giant Food, which had opened its first Philadelphia store on Grant Avenue near Roosevelt Boulevard, decided to do something meaningful in Northeast Philadelphia by donating $80,000 for Mayfair Memorial Playground equipment.

Over two rainy weekdays in October, the nonprofit playground builder KaBOOM supervised 200 neighborhood volunteers to make Mayfair's dream a reality.

"We were people taking time off from work on a weekday - parents, college students, union teamsters, carpenters, electricians," DeFelice said. "We were cooking on seven big grills, drilling holes in concrete, rebuilding the flower beds and putting down 1,000 pounds of mulch on a cold, rainy day. Everyone got their hands dirty."

DeFelice sat at a playground picnic table, watching a United Nations of little kids play hard on the slides and climbing equipment. No one tripped. He smiled.

"You feel good when your kids are going down that slide, and you can point and say: 'See? I screwed that bolt in.' "

DeFelice pointed to a fire engine that kids were climbing all over. "See that little red fire engine?" he said proudly. "I screwed the wheels in."

Lambie said: "Our playground committee is never going away. During the build, I practically lived here for days, from before the sun went up till it went down. My kids still call this 'Mommy's playground.' "

She laughed. "I'm sure the other moms' kids call it that, too."

DeFelice said the playground's rebirth continues with new exercise equipment and plans for more children's areas, and continues to generate the can-do energy that created Mayfair's weekly farmers markets and its new Third Thursday night markets with crafts and live music.

"This all started with a Mayfair mom who wanted to give her kid a safe place to play," DeFelice said. "It's been awesome."


On Twitter: @DanGeringer

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