By Allegra Abramo
One sunny, late-winter day 19 years ago, Maria Roca took her 9-year-old son Corey to the playground in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. It was her first visit to the playground since moving back to her childhood neighborhood a few weeks earlier.
Roca found syringes and used condoms scattered about the grounds, evidence that the parks department hadn’t cleaned the playground that day, even though it was already late morning. She photographed the detritus to show park personnel, then wrapped a plastic bag around her hand and picked it up.
Roca, a Cuban immigrant, asked the other Latina mothers in the playground: When do they clean? What happens in the summer? Do they have any concerts or programs for the kids?
“At this point, they’re laughing so hard their heads are gonna fall off their shoulders,” said Roca. She said the women looked at her like, “Where are you coming from? This doesn’t happen in New York.”
“I said: ‘Actually, these things do happen. There are concerts in the parks for the kids. The playgrounds get swept at least twice a day,’ ” Roca said, referring to programs at Prospect Park and parks in Manhattan. “And then came the, ‘Ah, that’s where the blanquitos live, that’s where the white people live.’ ”
Today, it’s hard to imagine that Sunset Park was once plagued by drugs and violence, and patrolled by gangs. Throngs of children from the neighborhood’s large Chinese and Latino communities run, swing and slide in the playground. Parents complain that it is too crowded, and children gripe that they must sometimes wait 30 minutes or more for a turn on the swings. Next year the playground will undergo a $2.4 million overhaul of its chipped and outdated equipment.
Much of the change has been due to the activism of parents like Roca, who started Friends of Sunset Park not long after her visit to the playground nearly 20 years ago. Meanwhile, some of the other playgrounds in the neighborhood, where nearly half the residents are foreign-born, languish for lack of advocates.
Friends of Sunset Park started by organizing cleanups in the park. The organization quickly became a thorn in the side of the parks department, Roca said, asking, “ ‘Why is this not being done?’ And calling — again, and again and again,” Roca said. The group also joined with the nonprofit City Parks Foundation to host music, bilingual theater and other programs for children.
A few years ago, several parents formed a second group called SPRIG, short for Sunset Park Restoration and Improvement Group. It also sponsors cleanups and events, and they helped lobby outgoing City Councilwoman Sarah Gonzalez to fund the playground renovation from her discretionary budget.
Mary Price, who manages outreach to community groups for the Partnership for Parks, a joint program of the City Parks Foundation and the parks department, said she has witnessed major improvements to the city’s parks. “And basically, it was due to the effort of a community group being connected to the park, and the elected officials hearing the concerns of that group in order to bring about a difference in a park or playground,” said Price, a 28-year veteran of the parks department.
Price and Brooklyn Community Board 7 Vice Chair Joan Botti said that community groups also play an essential role in maintaining the city’s growing roster of parks. “In the last so many years, the parks department has been cut tremendously. And they have not only lost personnel, they’ve lost money,” said Botti, who grew up in Sunset Park and chairs the board’s parks committee. “It’s impossible for them to take care of everything.”
Nancy Lane, one of the lead organizers of SPRIG, believes park personnel do the best they can with limited resources. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, why isn’t the park here to do this cleanup?’ Well, the people who clean up our parks have 12 parks that they clean up that day, or more,” said Lane, who has a 3-year-old and an infant.
The problem of too few playgrounds concerns Sunset Park residents as much as too little funding. “I would be willing to bet we have more kids in our playground than in almost any other playground in Brooklyn,” Lane said. And she might be right: the community district that includes Sunset Park has more than 2,200 people per acre of parkland, compared to only 276 people per acre in New York City as whole.
When Sunset Park playground closes for what is estimated to be a year of construction beginning in late in 2014, the neighborhood’s half-dozen other playgrounds may face an influx of children. None of these playgrounds has been significantly updated in recent years, although the community board has requested funding for most of them. One other playground, in John Allen Payne Park on Third Avenue and 65th Street, is scheduled for $1.5 million in repairs beginning next year, according to Gonzalez’s office.
In its current dilapidated state, Payne Park appears to garner little affection from families, and little attention from the parks department.
On one Saturday in early autumn, there were no lines for the swings, just a couple of teenage boys swaying joylessly. In the park’s basketball court, Christopher Andrade, a 20-year-old college student, was shooting hoops with his younger brother as their father looked on. The men pointed out piles of leaves in the corners of the park that they said had been there all summer. They occasionally see park workers, they said, but they never seem to clean — they just sit on a bench. As usual, they said, the bathrooms were locked well before the posted 6 p.m. closing time.
At Sunset Park, such lapses might precipitate a call to the parks department from a frustrated parent. At Payne, the Andrade family didn’t think their lone voice would make a difference.
“This park is too lonely. It’s too ugly,” said the elder Andrade. “Nobody listen to this park.”
After Payne Park’s much-needed facelift, perhaps it will finally attract neighborhood advocates who will push for improved maintenance — or show up to clean themselves. In the meantime, it waits for parents like those who championed Sunset Park to speak up for it.