As the sun began to set on Port Richmond’s Powers Park last Friday night, teenagers walked the grounds, brazenly carrying open cans of beer. Some tossed cigarette butts into the grass. The smell of marijuana filled the air for a few moments as two girls on a bench passed a joint.
The locals that had gathered there said they weren’t surprised by the illicit behavior.
But they were angry about it.
About 20 Port Richmond neighbors met Aug. 24 at Powers — at Almond and Ann streets, behind the Richmond branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia — to make a stand and, as they said it, “take back the park.”
“This is nothing,” said neighbor Maria Schrack of the underage drinking and drug use in the park that night. “Usually, you can’t even be in the park.”
And while officers in a car and on bikes arrived that night to boot out the teens so many had complained about, neighbors said that it might take some serious efforts to keep them out for good.
Schrack helped organize the neighbors’ gathering that night, from 6 to 8:30 p.m., because she said she and others feel the current atmosphere of the park prevents it from being a family-friendly public space.
Denise Baron, who also helped organize the gathering, said the park has potential to be a great community space again.
“This is the first summer we can’t use it,” she said. “We all need to come together and brainstorm.”
Cathy Dugan, neighbor and member of the Port Richmond Town Watch, suggested park events like movie nights, morning yoga in the park or events in connection with the neighboring library.
“We need to give these kids something to do,” she said.
“The old men used to come out here and play chess, but the older people are intimidated,” Schrack said. “We need to do something. They’re not gonna intimidate me.”
That intimidation, neighbors said, comes from the teenagers — some local, some from out of town — who gather in the park in the late afternoon and linger until the early morning hours drinking, smoking, carving obscene graffiti into picnic tables, fist fighting and sometimes, Schrack said, openly urinating or having sex.
That Friday, there existed a clear divide between angered neighbors and the kids, who insisted they had the right to be in the park. After a shouting match between the two groups, a police officer arrived, drove his car into the square and told the teenagers to leave.
“I got five 911 calls about these kids,” the officer said, explaining that while he couldn’t arrest them since he witnessed no lawbreaking, he could ask them to leave since so many neighbors expressed concern.
Neighbor Erin Schrack said she believed that the neighbors’ efforts and support for their park that night made a difference.
“They [police officers] don’t usually tell them to leave,” she said. “This night they did.”
After the teens left the middle of the park and stood on the sidewalk outside its gates, a few residents tried to speak to them calmly to make them understand their frustrations.
“You’re welcome in my park whenever you want, as long as you’re drug free,” said a neighbor whose house overlooks the park. “If anybody says you’re not welcome, they’re wrong, but only if you don’t disrespect the park.”
Some of those in the group of teens voiced their belief that they were doing nothing disrespectful or illegal.
“We do drink,” said one 16-year-old girl, “But there’s no kids here [to witness it].”
“Every time I smoke, I throw it in the trash,” said one girl who insisted the group isn’t responsible for the reported litter in the park.
“Well, what are you smoking?” asked one resident.
“Weed!” the girl proclaimed.
The gathered locals said they were pleased the teenagers were asked to leave that day, but some worried the result wouldn’t be permanent.
“By 10 or 11 p.m., they’ll be back,” Maria Schrack said.
Schrack said she hopes that by bringing attention to the issues in Powers Park the community can see an increased presence of patrolling officers in cars or on bikes.
In a phone conversation Monday, Baron said that neighbors also gathered in the park on Saturday and Sunday, and had been more proactive about asking teens to leave the park if they intended to break laws.
“We’re not afraid to approach them and ask them nicely,” she said. “It’s been really good.”
The neighbors will continue to gather in the park every night this week.
Maryann Trombetta, president of the Port Richmond Town Watch, was also present that night. She said the best thing neighbors can do about park issues is call 911 and the Philadelphia Police Department’s 24th district tip line at 215-685-3281.
She also told neighbors that they are the most effective eyes and ears of the park.
“This is a quality of life issue,” she said. “The cops don’t live here. You live here.”
Star Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.