Surrounded by an unforgiving landscape of brick and mortar, concrete and asphalt, Pennypack Park presents Northeast Philadelphia with a 1,400-acre oasis of towering shade trees, grassy meadows and shimmering streams.
On mid-summer days, when the sizzling city pavement vaporizes every drop of moisture, the Pennypack is like a long, cool drink of water to hundreds of hikers, joggers, bicyclists, fishermen and picnic-goers.
It also might offer true serenity and natural beauty, if not for the many abusers who seem to violate most park regulations with impunity.
Park advocates say the violations range from illegal swimming and burning to littering, loud music and curfew violations. On some days, sections of the Pennypack resemble a beach resort more than they do a nature preserve. Yet, by all accounts, relatively little is being done to enforce the rules, which are there to protect visitors.
There simply aren’t enough park rangers to cover the territory effectively. Meanwhile, Philadelphia police often have their hands full with more serious crimes in the neighborhoods.
“Right now, it’s the trash and the swimming, and it’s really getting out of hand,” said Jim Ryan, longtime vice president of the Friends of Pennypack Park. “They trash the park from end to end. It’s seasonal. July and August are probably the worst.”
NO FREEDOM FROM MAYHEM
Rule-breakers were particularly active on July 4. Most of the activity seemed concentrated along the park’s primary paved bicycle path that winds for 7.5 miles from Frankford Avenue near Solly Avenue in Holmesburg to Pine Road in Fox Chase.
Dozens of groups set up picnic sites along the path, which essentially parallels the park’s namesake creek. They brought their grills, beach chairs and coolers. At some points, the throng of adults and children was so dense that it became impossible to distinguish where one party ended and the next one began.
According to Barry Bessler, the Department of Parks and Recreation’s chief of staff for parks and facilities, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. After all, the Pennypack is public property.
Yet, not satisfied with the shade and wispy breeze that day, dozens of folks took advantage of the environs to go for a dip in the creek’s shallow, slow-moving waters. Not coincidentally, they arrived prepared for the occasion with their swimming trunks and flotation devices.
Swimming seemed to be a primary attraction, although no lifeguards were on duty.
“With any body of water within the park system in Philadelphia — be it a creek, a fountain or a puddle — no swimming is permitted,” Bessler said. “Nobody is allowed to be in an unprotected body of water.”
Drownings have occurred in the creek, although statistics are unavailable from the park administration.
Health is another issue. According to Ryan, who specializes in public safety and environmental affairs for the FOPP, sewage and contaminated storm water runoff pose a threat to swimmers, although the creek is considered clean by environmental standards.
Ryan tried to warn swimmers in one recent exchange: “They said they have no place else to go. I said it’s polluted and they say, ‘Well, it’s cool.’”
BOOZE AND BOOM BOXES
On July 4, other park visitors cracked open their portable ice boxes to reveal cases of beer and other alcoholic beverages, although drinking in the park is another absolute no-no. To complete the carefree atmosphere, some groups pumped up the music, despite park restrictions on that behavior.
“The line is drawn in terms of sound. You’re not allowed to have amplified sound in the park,” Bessler said. “You can’t just bring your boom box and play it as loud as you want.”
With daylight waning, some groups left the park behind, along with bags of trash filling the few waste receptacles and piled elsewhere along the path. And some didn’t bother with bags at all. Instead, their debris blanketed the creek bed and its banks.
Local deer foraged through the piles seeking scraps of sustenance.
Meanwhile, dozens of people remained in the park approaching and beyond the 9 p.m. curfew, apparently set on igniting and reveling in some haphazard Independence Day fireworks.
“July the Fourth. That’s a big picnic day. That’s total destruction,” Ryan said. “It’s like an atomic bomb hit.”
The trash remained overnight, although city crews eventually removed it.
NO MEANS YES?
Similar problems persist during run-of-the-mill weekends, though to a smaller scale.
Last Saturday, groups began gathering in late morning along the bike path between Frankford Avenue and the Welsh Road underpass.
Two older women sat on a steep bank as two teenage boys and two younger girls waded in the creek nearby. A 2-foot-wide “No Swimming” sign was hanging on a tree just behind them. The women were unwilling to discuss the children’s activities.
Mere yards away, FOPP volunteers were clawing through the underbrush to retrieve weeks-old litter. They gather to clean the park on the fourth Saturday of every month, even as they watch others break the rules in front of them.
“You can’t let it bother you. We do this because we enjoy being out in the park,” said Jim Smyth of Burholme.
“Some of the kids’ drinking spots are a real mess,” said Kevin Sweetra, who lives near Welsh and Willits roads. “So we go and clean them up. Then we come back the next time and it’s back to the way it was.”
About 50 feet downstream, another group arrived. There were three or four women with several children, who immediately scurried into the water.
One of the women, Mari, said she was the only English-speaker in the group. She said she came with relatives “for the river and the weather. The weather is perfect today.”
When asked if she felt if it was safe for the children to swim in the creek, Mari replied, “With the parents [here] it’s safe.”
She declined to translate for the others in her group.
“They only want to have fun and that’s it,” she said.
They had no reason to believe that the authorities might arrive to spoil their fun. City park officials, park volunteers and local police all agree that violators get a free pass more often than not.
There are 24 park rangers to patrol the city’s 9,200 acres of parks. Among those, only a handful are assigned to the Pennypack and other smaller parks in the Northeast, such as Burholme and Fluehr parks. During the summer, they work in two shifts daily.
“At any given time, there’s not a whole lot of people patrolling in the Northeast,” Bessler said.
“If two of our rangers go to Frankford and Solly and there’s a hundred people swimming, what are our rangers going to do? They’re not going to pull people out of the creek. They’ll advise them, [but] those people may stay in the creek.”
The park administration does not compile statistics for violators. The city’s Bureau of Administrative Adjudication handles proceeds from fines.
Section 15-202 of the Philadelphia Code covers park regulations, so police have enforcement powers, too.
The 8th district covers most of the park east of Roosevelt Boulevard and has a few off-road motorcycles to access the bicycle and dirt paths. One day last month, Sgt. Mike Colello joined a motorcycle patrol and saw the problems firsthand.
They cited two people for drinking alcohol.
“Then we went up to the band shell (near Welsh Road) and saw hundreds of people swimming,” Colello said.
Like the rangers, they didn’t have enough hands to make a dent in the problem.
Police have had some success with the drinkers, according to Capt. Len Ditchkofsky, the 8th district commander. In June, officers arrested almost two dozen people for open container violations near Frankford and Solly avenues. Statistics for July weren’t available as the Times went to press.
But the park’s problems encompass a lot more than drinking. It amounts to consideration for the rules and for fellow park users.
“The whole idea is courtesy and respect,” Bessler said. “It’s the recognition that other people are using the park.”
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org