As city reopens, playgrounds within parks keep green space on lockdown

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A playground in Fort Greene’s Cuyler Gore Park remained closed on June 9, 2020. (Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY)

By Rachel Holliday, additional reporting by Carson Kessler

This story was originally published on June 9, 2020 by THE CITY.

It’s been 10 weeks since local parks officials, upon order of the governor, closed all the city’s playgrounds — also shuttering, in many cases, the parks around them.

Since then, entire parks and other green spaces have shut down to the public because they include playgrounds or other off-limits amenities like handball or basketball courts and dog runs.

In Midwood, Brooklyn, local kids have taken to playing on a strip of grass between Kolbert Playground’s locked gates and the sidewalk, while empty benches and open space adjacent to the play equipment remain behind lock and key.

In the East Village, the sliver of green space just north of Houston Street is locked around First Park Playground. In the South Bronx, the whole block around Mullaly Park’s skate park, playground and basketball courts is locked, along with two large lawns and seating areas.

As summer approaches, it’s unclear exactly when they’ll all re-open.

An East Village park on Houston Street remained closed on June 9, 2020.
An East Village park on Houston Street remained closed on June 9, 2020. (Carson Kessler/THE CITY)

The Parks Department referred questions about the closures to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. Jane Meyer, a City Hall spokesperson, said only Gov. Andrew Cuomo has the authority to reopen playgrounds

“We want to open them as soon as it’s possible and safe,” she added.

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said a decision will be made “in the coming days.”

‘It’s a Slap in the Face’

That’s not soon enough for Catherine Gasta, a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident who has walked miles around her neighborhood for exercise during the quarantine.

Her route takes her past two open spaces — Raymond Bush Playground and P.O. Reinaldo Salgado Playground — that have been closed for weeks.

“It’s very unfair,” she said. “These parks are playgrounds, but they’re enormous.”

Nearby Herbert Von King Park is open, but so packed that she avoids it. She was upset when friends posted photos from Prospect Park, more than two miles away.

“To see Prospect Park open so actively — it’s a slap in the face,” she said, noting that in her neighborhood, “you’re making these people now travel to get to a park.”

Exactly how much of smaller parks are cordoned off appears to vary.

In Fort Greene, for example, temporary barricades blocked all entrances to Fulton Street’s Cuyler Gore Park, which includes a playground, for weeks. The barricades have been pushed aside in recent days.

A shut-off soccer field in Mullaly Park in The Bronx, April 2, 2020.
A shut-off soccer field in Mullaly Park in The Bronx, April 2, 2020. (John Halpin/THE CITY)

Meanwhile, a mile and a half away at Cobble Hill Park, a small playground is barricaded, but the rest of the half-acre green space remains open.

The Parks Department oversees more than 1,000 playgrounds in the city, at least a quarter of which are within a larger park or open space, according to former Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

Completely shutting playgrounds, he said, was a “kind of knee-jerk response” fueled by health concerns at the height of the pandemic. But now he believes it’s time to rethink that approach.

“The city, generally, has on and off switches. It lacks the ability to handle nuance,” Benepe said. “So, when they say ‘Close the playgrounds.’ They say, ‘Okay, well, we only have one fence. And we don’t think we can fence off the playground. So, let’s just close the whole thing — the playing field, the sitting area, the handball courts. Just shut it all down.’”

He and two other co-authors of a recent Daily News op-ed are urging officials to reopen as many playgrounds — as well as pools and beaches — as possible this summer to maintain the “physical and mental health” of millions of New Yorkers.

‘Precious Open Space’

Benepe cited the Trust for Public Land’s map of how park closures have affected access to open space going into this summer. Large swaths of the city — particularly southern and central Brooklyn, eastern Bronx and much of Queens — are farther than a 10-minute walk from an open park.

Those playgrounds also provide “the single biggest element” of outdoor “cooling infrastructure” in the city: spray showers and splash pools for kids, and shade and air for adults, the former Parks chief noted.

The Daily News editorial board on Tuesday joined the call to reopen playgrounds, asking whether “the risk of outdoor transmission on hot summer days justifies continuing to deny New Yorkers access to precious open space.”

J.J. Byrne Playground on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, June 9, 2020.
J.J. Byrne Playground on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, June 9, 2020.  (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

In the East Village, local mom Lucy Alexander is eagerly awaiting the reopening of the play space at First Park. Her daughters, ages 9 and 11, “love that playground,” but haven’t visited for weeks, she said.

“Since March, they have stayed indoors,” she said. “I take them out for one short run most mornings. The closed streets make that easier. We cycle around town on weekends.”

She understands why the playground was closed, but is eager to see it unlocked again — “when it’s safe.”

“We can’t wait for it to reopen.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.