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The Guardian

A historic natural pool was trashed. Could filling it with rocks save it?

Debate over how to protect landmark without limiting access comes as Philadelphia parks face $12.5m funding cutThis summer, Devil’s Pool – a basin where the Wissahickon and Cresheim creeks meet in Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley park – drew thousands of daily visitors from out of state, leaving mountains of trash and fresh graffiti on rocks and trees. The attention has concerned and frustrated locals, and brought back an unpopular proposal for deterring swimmers: filling the pool with rocks.Many residents say the real issue is not any new influx of people – but how the cash-strapped city doesn’t have enough park rangers.But after tensions came to head this summer, with most residents wanting more enforcement of the park’s rules and regulations by the city and some worried about keeping the park open for everyone, local officials seemed briefly willing to try anything: the city councilman Curtis Jones said he was supportive of constituents who wanted to fill in the natural pool.The idea has been around for a few years, even supported by some leadership of Philadelphia’s parks and recreation in 2015. But today, the department isn’t currently considering filling the pool.The proposal, while extreme, has become a flashpoint in a long-simmering local debate: how best to protect the historic landmark without completely cutting off the public’s access to it?Nancy Cresenzo, who grew up in and currently lives nearby Philadelphia’s Andorra neighborhood, is a leading force for change at the park, advocating for the city to bring more park rangers to the area and better enforcement of the park’s rules. She estimates about 90% of locals are against filling the pool – but that’s not to say they want visitors to swim, dive and party there either.“The problem is, Devil’s Pool is not safe,” said Cresenzo. “And if Devil’s Pool is a safety concern, why is something not being done?”Swimming in the city’s creeks is illegal and people have died after diving from high rocks or an arched sewer conduit at the pool. The Friends of Wissahickon (FOW), a non-profit that works in partnership with Philadelphia parks and recreation to maintain the park, also warns the water is a fecal-coliform-tainted cocktail of treated wastewater and storm runoff.The pool’s history and importance to numerous Philadelphians is what makes deciding what to do with the basin complicated.It’s unclear if the Lenni-Lenape ever used the basin for rituals, but Devil’s Pool’s name originates from how the tribe believed the water feature was an interface between good and evil. Later, a gazebo was constructed in the mid-1800s to encourage people to meet there during America’s Centennial Exposition, the first official World’s Fair held in the US.The park itself made history in 1868 when it became the first piece of public land set aside for preservation of its natural beauty.For Philadelphians, like Gregory Park who grew up in the Wissahickon Hills neighborhood, Devil’s Pool was one of the many places in the park he would visit as a child. Today, he visits the park with his children, where they explore the creek themselves.Based on estimates from FOW, daily usage of the park increased 10% on average between March and August, compared to the same time period last year. In July, when the number of visitors at the park was at an all-time high according to Philadelphia’s parks and recreation, park rangers reported 5,000 cars vying for about 100 legal parking spots.As an avid cyclist, Josh Haims, who lives nearby, notes that the increase in visitors over the years has hastened erosion of trails and walkways in popular areas due to increased foot traffic and people cutting new paths. In some areas, like those near Devil’s Pool, trails that were once narrow are now 5ft wide.He believes the park’s issues stem from the decrease in funding from Philadelphia’s parks and recreation, which just faced its largest cut of over $12.5m in funding for the upcoming fiscal year, and the city’s reliance on private organizations to supplement the difference.“States cannot rely on private funding to run their public parks. What’s happening here is a canary in a coalmine for what’s to come [nationwide] if we don’t invest in our park spaces,” said Haims.Philadelphia’s decline in its parks and recreation budget isn’t unique. Budget cuts to parks are common during times of economic uncertainty. In May, a survey by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), found that 31% of park agencies are already making cuts to their 2020-21 budget. Another survey by the organization found that 94% of state and local leaders anticipated a decreased tax revenue to force cuts in a variety of park programs and functions next year.In response to the budget cuts and the few park rangers in the area, Philadelphia’s parks and recreation set up additional signage throughout the area and in July dispatched social distance ambassadors, who would’ve normally worked in the city’s pool system, at popular entrances to the park and trailheads to remind people that swimming is not allowed and the government-mandated mask mandate.Maita Soukup, a spokesperson for parks and recreation, said the program was a success, citing how ambassadors also handed out thousands of masks and trashbags, and will continue in some form next year.FOW doesn’t believe Devil’s Pool should be filled with rocks; instead, the organization is exploring a number of other ideas to keep the area clean, like increasing the number of bathrooms in the park, according to Ruffian Tittman, the head of FOW. But she believes the city needs to seriously consider bringing back more park rangers.Cresenzo sees the battle over the future of Devil’s Pool as an extension of broader challenges facing the park – namely, how to keep it safe and open to all while the staff faces budget cuts – and remains optimistic that the community can do a lot to take care of the park while the city decides how to act next. The current changes alone, according to Cresenzo, have brought a “tremendous improvement to the park”. She’s still going to continue her advocacy for more park rangers and see what can be done at Devil’s Pool.“My friend was walking by Bells Mill Road Bridge [over the Wissahickon Creek] the other day and she said, ‘There’s no trash. There’s no trash on Bells Mill Road.’ It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop all the litter, but I’d say we’ve gained control of the park – and it’s a lot better for that,” said Cresenzo.

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