The Hunting Park Master Plan is a drawn diagram resting in the second floor conference room of the Hunting Park Recreation Center. To the people of Hunting Park the illustration is more than a poster of green dots and brown squares.
It’s a sign, a message of hope.
It’s a vision into the future of a park that serves as the heartbeat of the community and gives the neighborhood its name.
For Pennsylvania State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas of the 181st District and Tony Payton of the 179th District the park and its eventual transformation play a pivotal role in the platforms for change within the community for the upcoming elections. Both of the Democratic Party members have been very active in events taking place within the park and also play a role in the park’s community organization, Hunting Park United.
“Representative Payton’s office and Representative Curtis’s office have been a part of the process from the very beginning. They want to be engaged because they understand the importance and the value of making sure that their parks are centerpieces of the community,” says Jorge Santana, Payton’s chief of staff and a member of Hunting Park United.
The park is central to Thomas in particular because of his deep history with the community. He’s been in politics for over 20 years and owes his start to the residents of the community. After the death of Alphonso Deal in 1988, Thomas was handpicked by the community to run for office.
“The community in which I was working went out and put together their draft committee and wanted me to run for office, “says Thomas. “So I ran.”
It’s that selection by the people that’s motivated Thomas to be available as often as possible within the community. He makes frequent appearances at the Hunting Park Recreation Center. Sometimes he’s cleaning, other time’s he’s taking part in a community meeting, and on occasion he’ll even partake in a game of basketball with the children at the center.
And while Thomas believes that the importance of the park is to provide physical activity, he’s also pushing for the recreation center to evolve as a whole for the benefit of the entire community. This development is a top priority of his platform.
“Going into this next cycle I want to take another step towards transforming these recreation centers into children and family centers. I’m looking at pulling together public and private partnerships to help bring about that transformation,” he says.
Thomas plans to use the new family center concept to help close the generational gap in the community through involving the older members of the area.
“The good thing about the park is that we have ages 8 to 80,” says Thomas. “I think that the older community is the jewel of the community. We don’t want them to move. We want them to stay here and provide support to other generations.”
These family centers would also offer support to the older members of the neighborhood.
“We have people over the age of 55 who want to stay here but don’t have the energy to stabilize housing support. We need to bring a group of people out there to look at that. Look at people coming out there to help, make sure that the roof is fine or that the house is handicap accessible,” he says.
For Payton, the park is an important part of his platform because it provides an outlet to inform the community on the issues of environmental conservation and sustainability.
“Representative Payton understands the important connection that we are currently not engaging our young people in a real way of learning about the environment and about being environmental stewards. That gives us the opportunity to do a lot of different things,” says Santana.
According to Santana, Payton’s focus is directed toward the youth of the community, teaching them about important issues now to make sure that Hunting Park becomes a better place not only in the present but in the future.
“[We need to] figure out how to get our kids interested not only in the recreation center sorts of things like basketball and baseball but also in the recreational and holistic opportunities for engaging with the environment,” says Santana.
While both Thomas and Payton agree that beautifying the park is a major issue in their respective campaigns, community members such as Ruben Jones would like to see state representatives streamline the renovation process of the park.
“I think someone really needs to step up and take control in the situation so communities who want to beautify their areas, who want to create green spaces will be able to without a lot of red tape,” he says.
Thomas admits that while he might not have enough power to single-handedly streamline the process he will continue his push for the park.
“I might not have the resources to change all the problems but I can help by getting my voice out there.”
It’s that voice that has made Thomas a popular figure in the community.
“We could not do what we do without Representative Thomas. Anytime we can give him an award or a picture or something we do because of all he’s done for the area,” says Santana.
According to Santana, if Payton were to maintain his current status he could one day become a figure in the community the likes of Representative Thomas.
“[Representative Payton] is one of the most promising young officials in Pennsylvania,” he says. “When you see that kind of presence from a state representative, from any elected official, it’s very hard to see how that person is going to lose. I think the community understands that and the community endorses that from an elected official. They actually demand it.”
For both Thomas and Payton the Master Plan for Hunting Park is only a sign of things to come for the community. While it’s a significant part of his platform, Thomas wants more for the community and the park.
“I think that we are going to do what’s in the best interest of the people,” he says. “We need to make some changes and we will make some changes.”