Residents were shocked last week when they awoke Tuesday morning to see that the basketball court at Pop’s Playground, a popular park located just six blocks north of Fishtown, had been destroyed.
“I mean, they cut through 3-inch steel beams,” said Robin Semmelroth, a Kensington resident and volunteer with The Friends of Pop’s, a nonprofit that worked to transform the public space from a concrete pad where illicit activity thrived to a viable community space and nationally recognized skate boarding park.
“Whoever did this must have bought special tools,” said Semmelroth.
While residents first suspected the crime was vandalism or an attempt to scrap the metal for cash, those who work with the playground now believe the intent may have been a racially motivated effort to drive away black and Hispanic youth who play basketball there.
“We have been asked over the years by some residents to take out the basketball courts, and the argument was that [the kids using them] weren’t ‘from the neighborhood’,” said Semmelroth.
She and others see that language as thinly veiled racism from some long-time white residents.
Tom Potts, a native of the area and president of the Friends of Pop’s, described that attitude as sad, but not uncommon.
“The kids that play there are from all races, and they all get along, so we certainly don’t think it was the kids,” said Potts. “Some one from the community came here and did this intentionally, and the only thing we can deduct is that they didn’t want kids playing there.”
While he said there is no way to say for certain that destroying the courts — two nets at the center were removed, leaving just two shorts posts — was racially motivated, Potts described Pop’s as one of the few local playgrounds where kids from all backgrounds socialize on a regular basis.
That was certainly true last Thursday, as youth darted about in the adjacent skate park and played half-ball on one of the remaining nets.
Potts said activity was way down, especially on a day when public schools were closed.
“It was painful to watch,” admitted Potts, who said the courts had been there since 1969.
The incident comes on the heels of a clash between a mob of angry black and Hispanic residents and a white family in Port Richmond on Sept 9.
That confrontation, which led to two arrests, sparked racial backlash, and a group called the Keystone State Skinheads posted flyers around the neighborhood calling on white residents to take a stand.
Officer Annamae Law, of Fishtown’s 26th Police District, said the East Detectives Division is investigating the incident at Pop’s.
Semmelroth said workers from the Parks and Recreation Department removed the ruined basketball equipment. She estimates the damages are in excess of $4,000.
“We want to find out who did this,” said Semmelroth. “The courts were in great shape, and were very popular with the kids. I don’t see why someone would do this.”
While she said there have been some graffiti issues, this is the most destructive act the neighborhood has witnessed at the park.
Ed McGrath, 24, was at Pop’s with his two-year-old daughter, Oliva Kelso, last Thursday and was in disbelief that someone would destroy the basketball courts.
He’s been coming to the playground since he was kid, and said he’s seen much positive change over the years.
“I think this is a shame,” said McGrath. “This is a real neighborhood park, people are here every day and they take care of it. It’s not a junkie park like it used to be, with people sleeping around here.”
The friends group is asking that anyone with information contact the 26th district at 215-686-3261.••
Reporter Brian Rademaekers can be reached at 215 354 3039 or firstname.lastname@example.org.