When Jesse Rendell was a boy in East Falls, he was — like his father, former mayor and governor Ed Rendell — a sports fanatic. He played everything, from football to baseball to basketball, at McDevitt Recreation Center on Scotts Lane.
Now, Rendell’s own son plays sports at McDevitt, and travels to rec centers in the area as part of the Mt. Airy Stars travel baseball team. So he gets it.
“I am very familiar with how pivotal a role a rec center can play in a child’s life,” Rendell says. “Especially considering the situation we’re facing now, having a place where kids can have safe spaces is so important.”
In February, Rendell became the new executive director of Make the World Better Foundation, former Eagle Connor Barwin’s nonprofit that renovates city parks and rec centers in underserved neighborhoods around the city. He stepped in to the role at the tail end of a multi-year community engagement effort around Vare Recreation Center in South Philadelphia, the latest and largest of MTWB’s projects to date. Now, he is overseeing the $20 million construction project that will transform the crumbling facility and grounds into a state-of-the-art, community-focused center with new ball fields, a playground and green space.
“There are some real linchpins of the neighborhood, the way they’ve taken ownership of what happens in this community” says Rendell. “We’ve seen the way the rec center has meant something to them. It’s been really inspiring.”
The goal, as with all of MTWB’s parks, is to bring to the Grays Ferry neighborhood a modern, functional and welcoming rec center that reflects the needs and desires of the surrounding community. To Rendell, who has traveled with his son to suburban parks for baseball, it’s also about fairness. “It’s important for our kids to have facilities that are on par with the nice facilities we see in the suburbs,” he says.
So far, MTWB has raised 90 percent of the $20 million price tag for the construction, through Rebuild funds. Some of the rest the organization hopes to raise on July 23, when it hosts its annual fundraiser concert, with local-turned-national superstars Japanese Breakfast, indie oldheads Yo La Tengo, and singer-songwriter Cate LeBon. (Buy tickets here.) The concert will be held at the city’s Dell Music Center, with a pre-show meet-and-greet, where you are likely to find yourself mingling with the likes of Barwin, his good friend and current Eagle (and former Citizen contributor) Jason Kelce, and others.
Vare is the fourth park that MTWB has renovated since 2015, when Barwin — then an Eagle and a sometime Citizen contributor — rode his bike by South Philly’s Ralph Brooks Playground and decided to find out what he could do to help out. That first project, a $750,000 renovation of the basketball court and neighboring lots, with a community garden and mural, established a process Barwin has followed with every park since.
Before any plans are drawn, Barwin and the MTWB team meet regularly with community members, to understand how the rec center is used, who uses it, and how it could be improved to better serve the neighborhood. That means, often, Barwin folding his giant frame into rickety old chairs at community meetings, crouching down to play with children, hosting brainstorming sessions, cookouts, knocking on doors.
After Brooks, MTWB renovated the eight-acre Smith Playground at 24th and Snyder, with a revamped rec center and playing fields; and Waterloo Playground in West Kensington. When planning on Vare first started in 2019, it was falling apart. It briefly closed in 2017 because of structural issues, and parts of the building were being held together by chains and beams. But it was, and is, also a center of neighborhood life: There’s a public pool (outside the scope of MTWB’s work); a vibrant gymnastics program; a football team; soccer team; out-of-school and adult programs. The process of rethinking included — among other things — a research and archiving project to preserve and share the history of Vare.
The long planning process was, in part, due to the pandemic. But also, Rendell notes, it required balancing several different perspectives: What the community wants; MTWB’s vision for its work; and the reality of what the City’s Parks & Recreation Department — ultimate caretakers of Vare — can maintain and manage.
Finally, a couple weeks ago, MTWB unveiled a beautiful modern design, and broke ground on the Vare construction, which Rendell says should be completed by the fall of 2023.
Rendell first met Barwin and the MTWB team through a childhood friend, Jeff Tubbs, whose Urban Roots merged with MTWB in 2018, after working together on several park projects. Rendell, a former bass player for local punk rock band Don’t Look Down, lawyer, entrepreneur, consultant and business manager for his dad, says he introduced MTWB to its original executive director, Clare Laver, whom he knew through his work with Skate Philly. He served on the boards of both Urban Roots and MTWB before Barwin and Tubbs approached him about taking the helm of the group early this year.
Since then, it’s been headlong, especially with the mammoth job of overseeing construction just getting underway. It has, also, been rewarding.
“The most fun part of this is engaging with the community,” Rendell says. “There are some real linchpins of the neighborhood, the way they’ve taken ownership of what happens in this community. We’ve seen the way the rec center has meant something to them. It’s been really inspiring.”
Japanese Breakfast with Yo La Tengo and Cate LeBon, July 23, 6:30 pm, Dell Music Center, tickets $40 to $175 (for the meet and greet).
MORE FROM THE CITIZEN ON COMMUNITY GREEN SPACESArtist's rendering of the future Vare Recreation Center