Ahmad Elam was like most other 13-year-old boys in his Parkside neighborhood a few months ago.
“When I was at home with my friends and we were bored and didn’t have nothing to do,” said Elam. “So one day, we came here and started riding.”
Here is the Philly Pumptrack. A pumptrack is a bike course with a series of dirt berms and mounds for mountain bike and BMX cyclists. The Philly Pumptrack, which is an annex of the Parkside Evans Recreation Center and a part of the City of Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department, opened in late May after the four-year project was finally completed and is the first of its kind in the greater Philadelphia region.
The idea of the track came from three friends returning from hosting youth cycling competitions at a national conference. Heidi Grunwald, Kenn Rymdeko, and professional mountain bike racer, Harlan Price, decided to bring their idea back to Philadelphia.
“We dusted a power point off we had from previous attempts and went to the parks and rec office right after the merger,” explained Grunwald. “It seemed to be a fitting pilot project for them having actual recreation in the park. They asked if we could raise some money and we said yeah, and off we were.”
Although they were given authorization to launch early stages of the project in August of 2010, the trio did not gain headway until they received their first two grants for the project the following February.
While still searching for grant money continued, the next part of the project was finding the perfect location.
“We had no interest of doing this in the suburbs,” explained Rymdeko. “There is plenty of space and people who can put something like this together out there. The urban youth is underserved in our opinion. Our long-term goal is to have these (pumptracks) in every neighborhood in the city.”
After an unsuccessful attempt in the Juniata community, due to apprehensions of the culture associated with biking, Rymdeko and Grunwald met with Parkside Community Association’s acting executive director, Lucinda Hudson.
According to Rymdeko and Grunwald, Hudson and the Parkside community welcomed them with open arms and assisted in the securing of a $10,000 grant with Brown’s ShopRite to get the project moving. They also secured grants from the city of Philadelphia through Councilman Curtis Jones, the Fairmount Park Conservancy, and from multiple cycling organizations throughout Philadelphia.
With community engagement as another important part of the Philly Pumptrack’s location criteria, the Rymdeko, Grunwald, and Harlan knew Parkside would be the home of their pumptrack.
However, the trio was still nervous about the reception the Philly Pumptrack would receive.
“(We feared) it would be dead empty all the time and the community wouldn’t use it,” said Grunwald. “It makes it all worth it everyday when we see kids come in and graduate from the beginners track to the advanced track and their sense of accomplishment and overcoming obstacles. It is really great.”
Their fears were turned around when the grand opening of the track on May 10, 2014 brought over 550 people from across the area to the 5300 block of Parkside Avenue.
“The first couple weeks we were open, I had quite a few parents coming here mad at me because the kids came home all dirty and they ruined their new Jordans,” said Rymdeko. “Until they found out what we were doing. There isn’t a day that goes by where someone doesn’t stop by and say ‘hey, we love what you are doing here for the kids. Is there anyway we can help’ and there are more and more parents getting involved and that is fantastic.”
Since the grand opening and the closing of schools for the summer, Rymdeko, who is now the full-time volunteer project manager of the site, sees on average 150 visitors of all different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and places to the pumptrack daily.
Ray Lowder, mountain bike cyclist from New Jersey, is a regular to the pumptrack. He rides, volunteers, and teaches the kids at the park biking tricks with his 26-years of mountain biking experience.
“It (the pumptrack) is kind of like a home away from home for me with all the great people and kids I have met so far,” said Lowder. “Between Heidi and Kenn, they are just amazing. They build this and rallied people together like a giant family to bring something so awesome for the kids in the neighborhood.”
Elam was one of those kids brought into the family.
“Me, Kevin, and Ibrehim are Kenn’s right hand volunteers, that’s why we have the black medals,” explained Elam. “We get to ride the big track and do tricks and stuff but we help too.”
Elam, who just started riding bikes a year ago, spends almost every day at the Philly Pumptrack. Elam used to ride his bike on the streets and the local tennis court. Now he is one of the fastest youth riders on the Philly Pumptrack.
Not only does he ride, but also he volunteers as a youth marshal for the track. He is responsible for helping with sign in, trash pick up, monitoring and maintaining the track, and lending a hand to Rymdeko wherever necessary.
“Maybe someday they will be next Tony Hawke of BMX, the next Aaron Chase, Adam Hauck, or Jeff Lenosky of the world out of the Philly Pumptrack,” said Rymdeko. “But our main focus is the fun and stewardship of the park. This is their park as much as it is ours.”
The Philly Pumptrack is open daily from 12 p.m. until 8 p.m.
– Text, video, and images by Julian Hamer.