MULTIMEDIA: ‘Schoolyards to Playgrounds’–One Bloomberg Program Everyone Can Admire

Councilman Charles Barron opens a new playground at JHS 218 in East New York. Barron appropriated part of the money for the new facility on a former parking lot built through the city’s “Schoolyards to Playgrounds” program.

By Gabrielle Alfiero and Tobias Salinger

On one of the first cool days in October, students at JHS 218 in East New York struggled to sit still on the new turf field adjacent to the school building. Students sat in clusters, with their hands in their sweatshirt pockets or fiddling with the zippers on their stuffed backpacks. A pack of boys gave in to the urge to run around the field, cartwheeling and tumbling on the freshly laid turf.

Not long ago, this schoolyard was covered in asphalt.

“When I started, this was a parking lot,” said Janet Ross, principal of the high school that occupies the top floor of the school.

The new, multipurpose field and playground facility, which also includes a track, basketball courts, calisthenics equipment and picnic tables with inlaid checker boards, is one of the newest in the Schoolyards to Playgrounds Program. A partnership between the city and the Trust for Public Land, the initiative converts underutilized elementary and middle school play areas into public playgrounds. The JHS 218 playground opens its gates to the rest of the neighborhood when school is not in session.

The playground is the third new facility to open this fall under the Schoolyards to Playgrounds program, part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s larger PlaNYC initiative, which will ensure that all residents live within a 10-minute walk to a public park by 2030.

“We’re saying to the world that East New York is on the rise,” said Charles Barron, city councilman for the district, who was on hand for the ribbon cutting. “We want to gain the respect of this entire city.”

The Bloomberg administration started the program in 2007, when New York City had less green space per person than most major U.S. cities. To improve access to public spaces, the city selected nearly 300 sites to participate in the program, nearly a third of which required major capital improvements, including the playground at JHS 218. The city designated $117 million for the project, and so far has converted 229 school playgrounds, making park space accessible to more than 380,000 city residents.

There were at least 405 new playgrounds built in New York City since 2007 through the city’s “Schoolyards to Playgrounds” program and a private charity named Out2Play. The shaded areas represent community districts shaded according to their median income, with the darkest areas representing the lowest median incomes.

But Barron, who has been a city council member for over a decade and whose term expires at the end of this year, says he’s fought for years to get funding in his district, and that bringing the Schoolyards to Playgrounds program to JHS 218 was no different.

“You cannot build the Yankees a new stadium, the Nets a new arena, the Mets a new stadium, and shut down daycare, shut down youth centers, cut youth services, and not want to put money in parks and gardens and affordable housing,” he said. “I had to stand up and fight and demand my fair share for East New York.”

Once the green ribbon was cut, and the podium vacated, the students seemed more eager to run a lap with the council member than to learn the nuances of discretionary funding. As the students headed back inside for lunch, a small group gathered on the track for an impromptu relay race.

While the new playground is open to the neighboring community, the students at JHS 218 can still claim it as their own. They helped design the renovated space, adding whimsical touches, such as sea turtles, an octopus and brightly colored fish to the new basketball court. The playground hosts the school’s new flag football team and the Mighty Milers Club, which is open to anyone who wants to walk laps on the track Mondays and Tuesdays at 8:00 a.m.

“This is theirs,” Barron said of the school’s children. “Yeah, we put in some money, but this is their park. They designed it and that’s the most important part.”