A slide held together with duct tape at the bottom. Monkey bars bolted shut at the top with plywood boards. And waist-high weeds sprouting up from gaps in rubber mats.
Children can finally frolic again on park playgrounds closed for weeks due to the pandemic. But thousands of kids living in the city’s public housing complexes are up against everything from closed playgrounds to decrepit and potentially dangerous equipment.
The New York City Housing Authority has struggled for years to properly maintain, repair and overhaul many of its 710 playgrounds.
Now, scheduled fixes at 32 sites have been further delayed due to a COVID-19 funding moratorium, according to the Housing Authority. In several cases, no deadlines are set for ongoing projects.
And at least 20 NYCHA playgrounds slated for overhauls before the pandemic remain closed, or are in the middle of construction, with open ended completion dates.
“Fixing a playground is not like building a NASA spaceship,” said City Councilmember Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn). “No one can argue these are complicated projects. We are not building an international space station.”
The latest snags come two years after a damning report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer deemed 70% of NYCHA playgrounds in “unsatisfactory” condition, with some posing glaring safety hazards, such as jagged metal.
In response to the review, NYCHA vowed to conduct regular inspections and create a new tracking digital system. But THE CITY revealed in June 2019 that the checks hadn’t happened for more than a year.
As part of a broader plan to revamp its oversight of playgrounds, NYCHA in mid-January created a unit composed of in-house maintenance workers trained by staff from the city’s Parks Department.
The new playground unit inspected all of the authority’s play spaces a month later and fixed 86 “priority one” conditions that posed an immediate threat to public safety, according to NYCHA. Those conditions include everything from dangerously protruding metal to equipment about to break or already torn apart to worn out or torn safety mats.
That pre-pandemic inspection appears to be the last time the playgrounds were systematically checked before the city entered Phase 2 — reopening all of its outdoor play areas on June 22, and allowing other outdoor activity, including basketball, when Phase 3 began July 6.
“Although city and state COVID-19 executive orders have imposed necessary delays, NYCHA continues to make significant progress, where possible, towards repairing and upgrading our playgrounds,” said Rochel Leah Goldblatt, a NYCHA spokesperson.
‘It’s Not Fair’
At the Coney Island Houses, with more 1,100 residents in five buildings, the city has set aside $75,000 for a basketball court and playground renovation.
The playground construction, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, is underway. But the basketball court repairs are indefinitely delayed because of the pandemic.
Some parents living there bring their children to the nearby Surf Playground, operated by the city’s Parks Department.
“It’s not fair to have these very old playgrounds,” said Shena, the mother of a 9-year-old boy, as she sat in the Surf Playground, “but I’m grateful to have this one so nearby.”
One problem is that it can get crowded at the Surf play area in the afternoon, said Shena, who didn’t want her last name used.
“Until the pandemic is over, I’m just grateful to have anywhere for our kids to play,” she added.
‘They Need to Fix That’
At the nearby Gravesend Houses, the playgrounds featured a mixture of piecemeal temporary fixes and adaptations that discourage use. Duct-tape covered the bottom of a plastic slide in one play area. At another, plywood boards were bolted to the entrance to platforms on a play structure, including each end of a set of monkey bars.
Two miles away at the Marlboro Houses, NYCHA tore down one decrepit playground after it was badly damaged by a steam leak two years ago. Some residents at the housing complex, which was built in 1958 and contains 28 buildings, were excited by the prospect of getting a new playground.
But all that remains is a concrete circle and now there is no plan to replace it, according to Goldblatt, who noted that the authority is “working with local leaders to find funding” for a new facility at the site.
Citywide, the six-month moratorium will delay playground projects by approximately six to 11 months, she added.
“The city should be doing more,” said Betty James, president of the Marlboro Houses Tenants Association. “With this pandemic, ain’t nobody doing anything, if you ask me.”
Some of the repairs seem simple, like shortening the chains on a swing set at a spot. Children must scrunch their feet so they don’t hit the ground.
“They need to fix that,” an eight-year-old boy said of the overly long chains as he pointed to one of the swings at the Marlboro Houses last Wednesday.
‘No More Excuses’
As for NYCHA’s new playground inspection unit, it also identified 242 so-called priority two conditions, which do not pose an immediate threat to public safety but require repairs, Goldblatt said. All of those spots, aside for 50 that remain outstanding, were fixed by March, she added.
Earlier this month, Stringer sent a new letter to NYCHA demanding an update on the new inspection team.
“Our young people have experienced trauma and loss, between the disruption of school, the stress of the pandemic, and disproportionally high mortality rates of their neighbors and loved ones,” Stringer wrote to NYCHA Chair and CEO Greg Russ. “It has never been more urgent that children living in NYCHA have safe spaces to play this summer.”
It remains unclear how much NYCHA spends each year on playground repairs and the total set aside for complete overhauls. The authority says it costs an estimated $500,000 on average to replace a playground, a figure that varies depending on size and equipment.
It is not just about money, though, according to Treyger, whose district includes the Marlboro Houses. In 2014, he set aside $100,000 for playground fixes at Coney Island’s O’Dwyer Gardens that have yet to be completed.
“I fought damn hard to get NYCHA federal help after Sandy,” he said. “It is now July 2020 and they have still not completed the Sandy work.”
“There really are no more excuses,” he added. “They just need to get the work done.”