Fun days ahead


Five-year-old Shanya Holt is spending many of her summer days running and swinging around a new neighborhood playground.

"I like the merry-go-round," she said of her favorite part of the community addition.

Kenny Gamble, music mogul and chairman of Universal Companies, and philanthropist David Pincus recently collaborated on "Uncle David’s Universal Playground" at 15th and Catharine streets. The environmentally friendly area consists of a jungle gym, swing set, merry-go-round, gazebo and a hippopotamus water fountain.

Prior to Uncle David’s many children from the neighborhood traveled to Marion Anderson Rec Center, 17th and Fitzwater streets, but for Shanya, of the 700 block of Hicks Street, the new location is more convenient.

"My sister takes me [to Marian Anderson] because I’m only 5," she said.

While only a few blocks closer, Shanya can easily visit the $750,000 facility and be safe with college student, Karl McClain, maintaining the grounds and ensuring the children’s safety throughout the summer.

The grand opening was June 25 with local children lined up at the gate to get a glimpse of the new fixture, Gamble said.

"They ran in. They were hollering and screaming. It was a welcome surprise," he said adding, "I hear them over there hollering and screaming right now."

The playground and community garden were the additions to what Universal calls its "campus," which centers around 15th and Catharine, and includes Universal’s Office, Universal Institute Charter School, 801 S. 15th St., and countless homes the nonprofit has revitalized over the past 16 years, it will expand to Broad Street upon the completion of a strip of retail spaces by early next year.

The land where the playground sits was formerly the Attucks Hotel, which was one of the few establishments to provide rooms to African-Americans prior to desegregation. Gamble purchased the property in February 1999 and soon tore down the blighted building. He had plans to add condominiums, but soon changed his mind and found another use for it.

"Everyday I walk around with our charter school and the kids go out for a little recreation," he said. "They’re playing in the street. I always said it would be nice if we had a small playground."

For the project, Universal teamed up with Pincus, who had recently helped redevelop the Smith Memorial Playground in Fairmount Park. Gamble had met him through a mutual friend.

"We were just discussing some social issues on how we could continue to do positive things in the community, so Mr. Pincus suggested, ‘let’s do a project together,’" Gamble said.

Upon hearing Universal was working on a playground, Pincus immediately wanted to be a part of the effort.

Everyone had a say in the concept and Pincus helped introduce others to design and create it.

Aside from flowers, the playground embraces the going green, featuring energy efficient lights, as well as turf and artificial grass covering the gated play area, which is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer. Fall hours are to be determined.

"Everything we do now today is green sensitive," Rahim Islam, president and CEO of Universal Companies, said. "You got to be ecology friendly, environmentally friendly with everything you do."

The space holds an aesthetic value to the community, as well.

"It’s like a park playground," Gamble said. "It helps beautify the neighborhood."

The grand opening also showcased Faatimah Gamble’s Wellness of You Organic Community Garden, at the same site. After registering with Wellness of You, each plot is individually maintained by residents, civic associations and organizations. What began as about seven sections has expanded to roughly two dozen with room for maybe 10 more, Gamble said. The garden started earlier this year and now is filled with lush flowers, greens and vegetables.

"We’ve been eating the greens from that garden just about every day," he said of his wife’s project. "It’s beautiful. I can’t believe she grew those greens."

While the Gambles had owned the former vacant lot a number of years, the planting idea developed as a way to teach the community to eat healthy, a focus of Wellness of You.

"It seemed as though these community gardens are popping up all over the country, especially since Michelle Obama put the garden in the White House," Gamble said. "That was a great idea."

Starting in the fall, Universal Institute Charter students will have their own place for educational activities outside the classroom, which will include learning about healthy eating habits by participating in keeping their plot green and growing, as well as outdoor recreation in the new playground.

"It serves a couple of different purposes," Islam said. "The number one purpose it serves is for the school — for the charter school. The additional plus you get with it is the children in the community have a place where they can go and play and it’s right across from them."

At least two of the students who were utilizing the swings were pleased with the growing area. Siblings Qadree, 11, and Aneesah Lane, 10, who will be entering seventh and fifth grades, respectively, at Universal in the fall, have frequented the playground since it opened.

"It has more things and it’s new," Aneesah, of the 700 block of Hicks, said. "It’s fantastic."