Playground parents seesaw between anger, impatience


By H’Rina DeTroy

Where the Tompkins Square Park children’s playground once stood is now a construction site surrounded by chain-link fencing. A $1.5 million project by the Parks Department that began in August will revamp the playground. But some East Village residents are dismayed. 

“We’re thinking of getting a little demonstration together,” said Susan, who withheld her last name and who was spending last Thursday afternoon watching her daughter try out a new skateboard in the park. For Susan, the construction’s progress seems to be going at snail’s pace.

“I don’t see a lot of people working there each time I pass by,” she said. Susan heard rumors that the project will take six months — and “That’s too long,” she said.

“The East Village is finally getting what it deserves, ” said Gail Wittwer-Laird, a Parks Department landscape architect and lead designer of the new playground. An East Villager for the past 10 years and mother of two children, she said, “I feel like I have a personal relationship with the park. ” Wittwer-Laird anticipates the end of the playground’s reconstruction by — “the latest” — early spring 2009. Recently, Wittwer-Laird helped make over the P.S. 76 playground in Harlem. 

The redesign for Tompkins Square’s playground will include a water-play area with motion-detecting ground jets, a jungle gym that resembles a rock-climbing wall and parent-friendly cafe-style tables.

“We’re incorporating old play equipment, too,” Wittwer-Laird said, highlighting the effort to recycle by reusing some of the existing playground structures.

But for many residents, the construction has disrupted the rhythm of their lives.

“This was the main gathering area, not just for the kids, but also for the parents,” said Susan. “When you live in spaces as small as we do in the East Village, then these community gathering areas are really important. And, especially, like single parents — where do you go? You go to the playground and you can talk to other single parents. It’s an important resource.”

“They closed it and we lost like 20 friends maybe?” said Luis Castro, who was with his partner, Isabel Bigelow, and friend Jan Kuba Gontarczyk, all taking turns pushing their 2-year-old daughters on a tire swing in a smaller playground in the southeast corner of Tompkins Square Park. Parents they used to see every day now “go to different parks,” said Castro. 

“This is way too tiny for the whole neighborhood,” said Kuba Gontarczyk. An East Village resident for 17 years and a furniture maker, he said that the playground’s improvement should include better construction, safety and rat control.

“What we really need is a clean, well-designed playground,” he said. 

Isaac Morales, 24, a night student at F.I.T., said, for him, the barricade of wire mesh currently blocking the park’s western entrance “takes away from the beauty” of Tompkins Square. Also, the detour forces him to take cuts through what he called a rougher end of the park.

“I don’t know when they’re going to get finished with the construction,” Morales said. “But it would be nice if they did it really soon.”