The Creation of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation
The Recreation Movement, spearheaded by the City Parks Association during the late nineteenth century, led to the first forms of municipal recreation in Philadelphia. Happy Hollow Playground and Starr Garden, which officially opened in 1911, were the first public recreation facilities built. Under the 1919 Charter, municipal recreation (then called the Bureau of Recreation) became a function of the Department of Public Welfare, and early facilities like Athletic Recreation Center and Shot Tower Playground were built by the city.
Most of the programs in the early years were sports activities held during the summer months for school-age children. A notable exception to this was Doris Grabusic's dance program at Disston Recreation Center, which was started in April of 1939 and continued into the 21st Century.
It wasn't until April 17, 1951 that a new Home Rule Charter created the Philadelphia Department of Recreation for the "comprehensive and coordinated program of cultural and physical recreational activities to be instituted and conducted in all city recreational facilities."
On January 7, 1952, Joseph S. Clark Jr. became the first mayor under the new City Charter, and the Philadelphia Department of Recreation officially came into being. Its first commissioner was entrepreneur Fredric R. Mann. Mr. Mann asked Robert W. Crawford to come from Oakland, California to serve as his Deputy Commissioner and Superintendent. Together, the two men raised the standards of hiring and secured a professional staff to provide a high quality of leadership in the facilities. Mann and Crawford were also determined that recreation serve all people of Philadelphia, and year-round programs were begun for women, pre-school children, senior citizens, the handicapped and the city's diverse ethnic groups.
The city charter also called for a cultural program, and they added music, drama, dance and arts and crafts opportunities. They also purchased an existing camp in the Pocono Mountains in 1951 and started Camp William Penn the next year.
Later in 1952, Mann left the department to become City Representative and Director of Commerce, resulting in Deputy Commissioner Robert Crawford being appointed Commissioner. Crawford instituted a massive building program; he was determined that every neighborhood in the city would have a playground or recreation center.
The Expansion of Recreation in Philadelphia
Crawford believed in mandatory training in all fields of recreation for each staff member. To guide leaders in special areas, he created three Specialty Offices: Performing Arts, Arts & Crafts and Sports & Athletics. As a result of these Specialty Offices, the following programs were instituted: The Junior Baseball Federation Program, Bike Rodeos, The Holiday Decorations Contest, The Nutcracker Doll Contest, The Bulletin Board Contest, the first One Act Play Competitions and the Traveling Plays and Players. (The current programs of Fire Prevention Plays and the Young Performers Theater Camp have succeeded the latter two programs.)
Another achievement in 1972 was the creation of Carousel House, a recreation facility specifically providing services for persons with disabilities. This facility was started in the actual building that housed Fairmount Park's Carousel.
The Broad Street Run was first conducted in 1980 with less than 1,500 entrants. In 2011, the maximum number of 30,000 runners signed up to be challenged by the ten mile course.
The 1980's saw growth built on previous accomplishments: Outdoor Soccer programs had been on the scene for years, but in 1985 the Department initiated what became the world's largest indoor soccer program. The Golf Camp was added to the already impressive lineup of summer camps in 1986.
In 1988, Older Adults Services were transferred from the Health Department. The next year the department opened the fifth Older Adult Center — Juniata Park. In 2006 the West Oak Lane Senior Center was transferred from MOCS to the Recreation Department.
The Department, working with Philadelphia Green, initiated a Parks Revitalization Project in 1993 with the belief that clean, green, safe and well-used parks are fundamental to the health and vitality of urban life.
Also in 1993, the Department started the award-winning Creative Resolution Theatre. This touring interactive theater program helps children and adults move from conflict to creative resolution in a fun, safe and supportive environment.
In January of 1994 the first Youth Access Center (YAC) was established at Gathers Recreation Center. A YAC provides enhanced opportunities available to the community through on-site program collaborations with other city agencies, such as the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services.
As an extension of the Youth Violence Reduction Initiative, the Department instituted After-School Programs in 1996. The primary purpose of this program is to provide safe, structured activities for youth during the 3:00-6:00 p.m. time frame. From a modest start of twelve programs, Recreation After-School grew to 140 sites.
At the department's newly developed "Teen Centers," young people between the ages of 14 and 24 are offered a constructive environment where they have access to such offerings as basketball and volleyball leagues, boxing instruction, a fitness room, movie nights, ceramics and jewelry-making courses, computer labs and mentoring programs.