COVER STORY: Economic Inequality Rides the Swings in New York City’s Playgrounds


Plaque in Tudor Grove Playground, Midtown East, names then-parks & recreation commissioner Robert Moses, who built many of the city's playgrounds.

Plaque in Tudor Grove Playground, Midtown East, names then-parks & recreation commissioner Robert Moses, who built many of the city’s playgrounds. (photo by Kevin Convey)

By Kevin R. Convey

In a corner of the deserted Tudor Grove Playground on 42nd Street, between First and Second avenues, lies a granite marker commemorating the park’s opening in 1950. Underneath the name of all-but-forgotten Mayor William O’Dwyer is one that will never be forgotten — Robert Moses.

Moses, who was the city’s parks commissioner at the time the playground was dedicated, was better known as New York’s “master builder” — largely responsible for constructing the many highways, bridges, parks and public housing projects that make up city’s modern infrastructure.

Moses was also known – after the publication of Robert Caro’s magisterial but damning biography in 1974, anyway – as the city-striding colossus who flattened countless poor neighborhoods and steamrolled tens of thousands of powerless people in pursuit of his edifice complex.

The master builder’s indifference to the disadvantaged, it turned out, also characterized his construction of playgrounds. During his nearly 50-year career, Moses built more than 650 playgrounds – more than three times the number the city had erected during its entire history up to that point. But Caro’s analysis of their locations was striking.

“He built parks and playgrounds with a lavish hand, but they were parks and playgrounds for the rich and comfortable,” Caro wrote. “Recreation facilities for the poor he doled out like a miser.”

During the 1930s, Moses built 255 playgrounds, Caro explained, but only one in Harlem, for example. One in Bedford-Stuyvesant. None in Jamaica, Queens.

These symptoms of economic inequality weren’t the subject of widespread discussion in Moses’ time, of course. However, the progressive candidacy of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to succeed Michael Bloomberg as mayor – and his landslide win – raised it to the level of cocktail-party chatter and dinner-table conversation all around the city over the last year. Indeed, the promise to work toward a happy ending for this “Tale of Two Cities” storyline was de Blasio’s central issue.

And so, as multi-billionaire Mayor Bloomberg departed the stage and de Blasio entered, stage left, we wondered: Does economic inequality in New York City – the gap between rich and poor – affect the city’s playgrounds, too? Does how much you earn and where you live determine how modern, well kept and safe your child’s playground is? Does the shade of Robert Moses, 32 years dead, still stalk the city’s playgrounds?

****

The intersection of economic inequality and playground conditions is a complicated one. Our survey of 127 of the city’s 1,000-plus playgrounds – during which we collected information about safety, maintenance, equipment condition and quality, and cleanliness throughout the fall – was not scientific because we visited a combination of self-selected playgrounds and others selected at random.

Though the overall correlation between playground conditions and the census-based socio-economic standing of surrounding neighborhoods was not dramatic, a few data points stood out when we divided the playground data into quartiles based on median family income.

• Four out of 15 playgrounds in the city’s richest areas got perfect scores, while only three of 42 playgrounds in the city’s poorest areas scored perfectly.

• We found that 14 out of 15 playgrounds in the city’s richest areas – nearly all of them — were clean and safe, while 27 of 37 playgrounds in the poorest areas were clean and safe.

• Correlating the percentage of playgrounds that earned passing grades with the median family income of their neighborhoods yielded clear, if unscientific, evidence that poor neighborhoods are more likely than wealthier ones to have substandard playgrounds. In those areas where the median household income ranged between $60,000 and $80,000 annually, 73 percent of playgrounds passed our test. Where household income was $40,000 to $60,000, 79 percent passed. Where income ranged from $20,000 to $60,000, only 68 percent passed.

And if our study did not show a textbook correlation between income inequality and poor playgrounds, our research and site visits turned up subtler ways in which the city’s poor and powerless are denied equal access to great playground facilities for their children.

Again and again, for example, we were told about playgrounds that had fallen into disrepair or into the hands of drug users and dealers, drunks and gangs, and were not taken back until local parents demanded action from the parks department. We examine two such tales in our stories about Sunset Park Playground and Mt. Hope Garden Park playground.

Mary Price, a 28-year veteran of the parks department, acknowledged as much. She said she has seen major improvements to the city’s parks and playgrounds, but “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.”

The problem, of course, is that parents in some poorer areas of the city are so hard-pressed just surviving that devoting scant free time to reclaiming a local playground from the dark side is a luxury. Moreover, some wouldn’t know how to locate the levers of power even if they had time to press them. This is one way economic equality affects playground quality.

A second is the way playground construction and repairs are funded. The parks department has no discretionary capital budget of its own. Increasingly, funding for major construction and repair projects comes from discretionary budgets allocated to borough presidents and the City Council. One playground project we document, at Junior High School 218 in East New York and spearheaded by City Councilman Charles Barron, was built in this way. Another was funded back in 2009 through the efforts of a city councilman named Bill de Blasio.

This, too, requires the kind of savvy and lobbying skills that may be beyond those who need playgrounds the most. But there are additional impediments built into this system.

“You’re kind of at the whim of ‘Is this city councilperson committed to parks?’” Holly Leicht, director of New Yorkers For Parks, told City Limits. “Does this city councilperson have enough allocations to hit parks when they have a lot of other needs? In that case, you do get income discrepancies, because in some low-income neighborhoods there’s a lot more demands on council money.”

A third way in which economic equality enters into the playground-quality equation is through private support for some of the city’s larger playground-containing parks, notably Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. While this is a boon to parks and neighborhoods fortunate enough to have deep-pocketed patrons ready to pay for construction, repairs and maintenance, few have access to that level of resources. If more did, perhaps the Mt. Hope Garden playground in the Bronx, whose story we tell, wouldn’t have been locked up since 2008 when a dangerous sinkhole rendered it off limits to the neighborhood’s children.

“If this was in Manhattan, the project would already be done,” Councilman Fernando Cabrera, representing the Bronx’s 14th district, told us. “I always feel, and the proof is in the pudding with Mount Hope Garden, that we in the Bronx get left behind.”

It turns out that Cabrera’s sentiment, and the perception of income inequality, is widespread, particularly among lower-income residents with poor access to parks and playgrounds in New York City. A study commissioned by New Yorkers for Parks found that such residents were most likely to be dissatisfied by the conditions at their local playgrounds – and to feel unsafe in them.

“When I go to work, I pass by all this shiny, new climbing equipment,” said Asia Herrera, a parent of two who takes her kids to the Marble Hill Playground in the Bronx, but works in TriBeCa. “Here we’ve got broken mats, cracks in the pavement. We’ve got rats running on the benches. We’ve got drug deals going down right across street.”

For parents like Herrera, perception is reality when it comes to the relationship between income inequality and playground conditions.

****

Robert Moses-built Tudor Grove Playground, Midtown East.

Robert Moses-built Tudor Grove Playground, Midtown East. (Photo by Kevin Convey)

In many ways, the Tudor Grove Playground on East 42nd Street is characteristic of many of the playgrounds Moses built – and of the way many remain to this day. It’s a lonely jungle gym and slide in the middle of a cobbled yard surrounded by a few benches and the kind chain-link fence Caro likened to an “animal cage.”

Caro bluntly described Moses’ prevailing design as “banal,” but one thing was certain: it was an improvement over what most children had before that — which was nothing. Prior to the city’s 1903 dedication of Seward Park on the Lower East Side – the first playground sponsored by any municipality in the United States – children without access to the few private playgrounds in New York City were forced to play either in vacant lots studded with trash and broken glass or in the streets.

The tightening of child labor laws at the dawn of the 1900s gave children more time to play — and the city responded by building more playgrounds after Seward. But between then and Moses’ arrival in the 1920s, the parks department budget, under which playgrounds fall to this day, was largely employed as a patronage fund for Tammany hacks looking for a soft spot to land. As a result, those playgrounds that were built tended to be poorly designed and even more poorly maintained.

Meanwhile, society was beginning to view playgrounds as increasingly important, salutary not only for their value in getting children out of tubercular tenements and into the fresh air, but also for the development of morality, good behavior, and problem-solving and social skills. Moses’ playground-building boom came at exactly the right time.

But Caro wasn’t the first to point out the inequity in the locations of the playgrounds Moses built. In 1950, he wrote, the New York Times sent a reporter up to Harlem to examine children at play. He reported that most playgrounds in the neighborhood were largely vacant lots, where “barelegged children” played on “dumps of broken glass, rusty cans and refuse.”

And this was hardly a phenomenon consigned to the darker periods of the city’s history. In 1985, the Times returned to the subject, surveying the city’s then-852 playgrounds, and found a damning correlation between a neighborhood’s income level and the condition of its playgrounds.

“Although there were fine playgrounds in low-income neighborhoods,” the Times reported, “the worst playgrounds tended to be for the children of the poor, in places where the City Parks and Recreation Department has been losing the war against vandalism and drug abuse. What is a swing? There were playgrounds in Brooklyn and the Bronx which, at the time of the survey, had been without swings so long that parents said they could not remember when there had been any.”

Yet, through good and bad, playgrounds remain important to parents – and something they are willing to fight for. It is no small irony that Moses’ downfall began in 1956 when he paved a popular play area in Central Park to provide a parking lot for the toney Tavern on the Green. Parents and park lovers protested the move, forcing him to bulldoze the area under cover of darkness. The resulting outcry was seismic – and created an anti-Moses backlash that steadily diminished the master builder until he left public life in the early ‘70s.

****

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, they say. And while — unlike Moses — Mayor Michael Bloomberg was hardly chased from office or even visibly hurt by a controversial scheme involving playgrounds that blew up during his final year in office, it did solidify the view that he, like Moses before him, was indifferent to the problem of economic inequality.

In February, Bloomberg’s New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) hatched a plan to flatten the playgrounds, parking lots and community centers in some of the city’s low-income housing projects in order to allow developers to build luxury housing on the rubble.

In some ways, this was vintage Bloomberg, who almost always sided with real estate interests and Wall Street in any dispute – but rarely so directly at the expense of the poor. It almost summed up de Blasio’s entire “Tale of Two Cities” narrative at a stroke. The blowback from residents and housing activists was predictable.

“The people who already live in public housing,” one told the Daily News, “are going to be resentful that you built this housing and left them in shambles.”

City Comptroller John Liu, who was running against de Blasio for mayor at the time, was even tougher. He called the plan a “giveaway to developers with NYCHA getting a small paycheck for luxury real estate, built on the backs of current residents.”

But equally predictable was the peevish reaction of the ever-dyspeptic mayor.

“If you want to have NYCHA buildings be improved and be great places to live, safe and clean and where things function, you’re going to have to have money from someplace,” he said.

It was in some ways typical of Bloomberg’s tenure that blindness to symbolism and a peckish reaction to criticism would incite a controversy that would, for a moment at least, overshadow the mayor’s record on playgrounds – the best of any mayor since Moses’ era.

In 2007, Bloomberg announced with great fanfare his PlaNYC initiative, a sustainable-city blueprint that called for, among other things, the construction of 290 playgrounds in schoolyards. The goal was to place a park or playground within a 10-minute walk of every New Yorker. By the time he left office, he had converted some 230 school playgrounds.

In addition, Bloomberg’s parks department also rebuilt about 50 Moses-style playgrounds into state-of-the-art facilities with the imagination-stimulating elements – tall ship-style climbers, tree houses and “manipulable” features such as blocks, sand and waterworks – that child experts were now recommending for more enriching, less-structured play.

Bloomberg’s sterling record on parks construction was somewhat tarnished by questions about maintenance. In 2012, Liu issued an audit that surveyed 107 of the city’s parks and found broken, rusty or dangerous equipment, damaged benches and rat infestations. These issues persisted for months after the conditions had been reported to the parks department. The audit questioned whether the department’s regular inspection schedule, under which 205 playgrounds were supposed to be randomly assessed every two weeks, was effective.

The mayor’s record was also dented in 2010 when the Daily News surveyed 113 schoolyard playgrounds that were supposed to be open on weekends under PlaNYC. Surveyors found a quarter of them padlocked.

On the other hand, our study found that – putting concerns about economic inequality aside and looking at the aggregate results – Bloomberg and his parks department earned generally good marks for the cleanliness, maintenance and safety of the city’s playgrounds. During our site visits, we were particularly struck by how clean most playgrounds were – 85 percent of them scored well in this category.

Four-fifths of the playgrounds we surveyed were found to be easy to get to, and connected to their surroundings in an area appealing to and frequented by kids. We found the equipment in “good shape” at 81 percent of the playgrounds we visited. It was only in the categories relating to modern playground design – whether there was more than one type of equipment, accessible to other types, and whether there were blocks, sand, water or other “manipulable” materials with which kids could exercise their imaginations – that passing grades fell under 50 percent. This is a testament to the vast number of old-school Moses-style playgrounds still in use across the city.

And, despite Bloomberg’s best efforts, the tale-of-two-playgrounds storyline persisted during his mayoralty. Just this year, the Times reported -– exactly as we found — that some working-class neighborhoods have better playgrounds than others because of the largesse of City Council members and borough presidents steering money toward their local parks and playgrounds. This prompted New Yorkers for Parks to lobby for a fairer mechanism of allocating parks money — in spite of Bloomberg’s aggressive parks program.

****

That issue, it turned out, was on de Blasio’s mind, too. This year he gave the city’s philanthropic classes a taste of his approach to ameliorating economic inequality in the realm of parks – and they didn’t find it savory. De Blasio was an early supporter of state legislation requiring that would force any park conservancy with a budget of $5 million or more to give 20 percent of its operating funds for redistribution to other parks. It didn’t come to a vote in Albany, but some private parks supporters warned in October — with de Blasio headed for a massive victory — that such a scheme would cause them to reconsider their donations.

Peter Sloane, the chairman and chief executive of the Heckscher Foundation for Children, which had given millions to the Central Park Conservancy for playgrounds, ball fields and other projects, told the Wall Street Journal that the idea would “cause us some pause if we weren’t assured that the stewardship of the money was as vibrant and careful as the Central Park Conservancy.”

De Blasio didn’t respond directly, but talking about the idea earlier in the campaign, the Journal said, he told NY1 in an interview, “I think we have to share the wealth a little bit here.

“So, for anyone who wants to donate to Central Park, they’re still going to be helping Central Park; most of the money is still going to benefit Central Park,” de Blasio said. “But some of that has to be moved to where the need is greatest, in neighborhood parks that, right now, are really suffering.”

As of mid-October, according to the Journal, a spokesman said de Blasio was still supporting the idea. Beyond his stance on that issue — and his work while on the City Council to secure $1.8 million for the 2008 renovation of the Vanderbilt Street Playground in Prospect Park, Brooklyn – exactly what Mayor de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities” rhetoric might mean for the city’s playgrounds remains unclear.

A few things are clear from our work, though. There is ample evidence that poor neighborhoods are more apt to have poor playgrounds than wealthier areas. The difficult steps necessary to take back a playground or pry money loose to rehabilitate one make that relationship even harder to overcome. The role of private financing or parks and playgrounds is double-edged, assuring that the city’s grandest spaces are amply provided for even as smaller, poorer spots go begging. Also clear is how sensitive residents are to perceptions of unfairness in the quality, cleanliness and safety of their local playgrounds in comparison to facilities in wealthier neighborhoods.

If Mayor-elect de Blasio manages only to reduce those perceptions, his promise to write finis on the “Tale of Two Cities” will have been fulfilled in at least one important respect. Clearest of all from our work is how very deeply residents of New York care about their playgrounds.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *