When Money Talks: Closing Philly's Community Green Spaces

Philadelphia's Cione Field in the Riverwards area used to be one of those special places where one could enjoy the gentle breezes of spring and summer while sitting on a bench with a chicken salad sandwich. The field (it is officially registered as a playground) with its large space capable of "hosting" team sports like soccer, lacrosse, baseball or football, was for years also used as a walker's short cut to other parts of the neighborhood or as a place for a leisurely stroll when one felt the urge to walk on green instead of asphalt.

While I rarely get an urge to walk on green, I don't necessarily want to have to walk two miles to Penn Treaty Park on the Delware River to do so. I shouldn't have to hike to Penn Treaty Park for a small dose of green, especially since Cione Field is in my own neighborhood. A handy, ready-made nearby community field (as Cione Field is repeatedly called) is the perfect place for nearby residents to enjoy a bit of grass and open space. While I might visit Cione Field just five times a year, it has always been nice to know that this community field of green was always accessible, its gates open to one and all, whether they be kids playing ad hoc basketball or football, or city walkers in search of a relatively peaceful green space away from the endless noise of traffic on Aramingo Avenue and elsewhere.

Cione Field is on my mind because recently I had one of those green urges after buying a chicken salad sandwich at a nearby deli. It was lunchtime, the sun was out after weeks of rain, and I wanted to eat outside in a green, community space. But when I went to the field I noticed that all the gates around the field were padlocked. While one may make an argument that the field should be locked late at night (I think this community field should be open 24/7), the fact that it was locked in the middle of a glorious afternoon troubled me.

What good is a community field if it is always closed off to neighbors?

What good is a community field if it is only allowed to be used by certain segments of the community, like organized sports teams from various schools? Don't individual neighbors count as members of the community?

Must neighbors like me organize picnic lunch or chicken salad sandwich eating teams in order to gain admittance to the field?

Roman Catholic High School, for instance, wants to use the field as a practice field for their football, rugby and lacrosse teams. This sounds like a charming idea, especially if RCHS can put big bucks into improving the field, but not at the expense of community residents who would like also like access. Community residents want their piece of the field too unless of course the field's decision makers love the idea of padlocks and a Donald Trump Wall. If indeed this is the case, then please stop calling Cione Field a community field but change it to something like The Cione Field of Intense Sports Teams Practice.

All of this begs the question: Has life in our over survillanced world gotten so bad that neighborhood residents can't be trusted to enjoy a green space in the middle of the day? Northern Liberties has Liberty Lands, which of course is not surrounded by a fence, so it can never be locked, meaning that it is accessible to everyone, with or without a chicken salad sandwich. But the Riverwards people in Olde Richmond (though real estate agents will call this area Fishtown until the end of time), have no open free public green space at all. The fact that Cione is registered as a playground might be the real obstacle here, but if that's the case, then the field should never be referred to as a community field. Perhaps it's time to redefine Cione as a park.

Neighborhood open green spaces with benches are essential to the health of any community. In all of Olde Richmond there are very few public benches. Two public benches were removed recently: one in the traffic island near Cumberland and Aramingo Avenue and one on E. Thompson Street. The message here is clear: Pedestrian traffic must keep pace with automotive traffic.
Port Richmond, to its credit, has wonderful parks like Campbell Square on E. Allegheny Avenue and General Pulaski Park, where there are no fences or locks and where people can eat chicken salad sandwiches, walk their dogs, ruminate, play with their I Phones, file their nails, contemplate their navels, talk to friends, or read the latest bestseller.

Several months ago I spoke with a Cione Field neighbor who told me that the fence around the field was locked to keep homeless people out. Trouble started, he said, when the homeless started to build a cardboard tent city in the middle of the park. Homelessness is a problem in most major cities, especially with the disappearance of the middle class and the division of Americans into rich and poor. In Atlanta, for example, park bench designers have come up with benches that make it very difficult to sleep in. That city has also installed spikes on the reverse side of dumpster and trash lids to ward off homeless dumpster divers.

As Robert Rosenberger pines in The Politics of Park Benches, "The way to deal with this problem is not through design strategies that help us to ignore it. The question of bench design for the Beltline -- where homeless men and women walked and rested before trees were cleared and concrete poured -- is emblematic of the larger tasks in front of us. As we expand and improve Atlanta..., we must decide what our vision is for the city. Who gets included and excluded? And how should we build those decisions into our infrastructure? "

That Cione Field neighbor also told me that dog walkers who don't clean up after their dogs was another reason why the field was padlocked. The piles of doggy do left in the grass proved too much for the organized sports teams, he said. While I support organized local sports as much as anyone, this is no reason to lock a community field. It's a little like closing a music venue like the Mann Music Center because some of the concert goers there don't know how to dispose of their trash.

As for the homeless, are people who sleep on green grass more dangerous than people who sleep on asphalt?

Most of the homeless in the Olde Richmond area seem to be transitory. They pass through the area from various parts of Kensington and then retreat elsewhere but they are rarely stationary. They are more like vagabonds on an eternal quest. The danger of a permanent tent city in Cione Field is about as real as an alien invasion near St. Anne's cemetery. The doggy do problem can also be managed if people who saw dog walkers not cleaning up after their dogs would issue forceful reminders. They used to call this making a "Citizen's arrest."

I doubt whether Cione Playground's original designers envisioned the field as a private-only lock down zone for special recreational activities. Ideally, the Cione fence needs to come down, and the area needs to be opened like Campbell Square in Port Richmond and filled with park benches. Area schools should really be responsible for their own practice fields and not impact a residential area with restrictions based on their own selfish needs.

Here's what Paul M. Sherec wrote in his essay, The Benefits of Parks:

"Beginning around 1990, many city and town councils began forcing developers to add open space to their projects," writes Paul M. Sherec in The Benefits of Parks. "Still, these open spaces are often effectively off-limits to the general public; in the vast sprawl around Las Vegas, for example, the newer subdivisions often have open space at their centers, but these spaces are hidden inside a labyrinth of winding streets. Residents of older, low- and middle-income neighborhoods have to get in their cars (if they have one) and drive to find recreation space."

So, let's remove the padlocks from Cione Field and stop living like we're in a re-militarized zone somewhere in the Middle East.

Let's put the real meaning of community back into Cione Field.