When Anthony Vargas looks for a place to play with his 18-month-old daughter, he never thinks about the long-shuttered playground right outside his Bronx public housing apartment.
In fact, Vargas, 35, didn’t realize the fenced-off area by Hunts Point Avenue Rehab, a New York City Housing Authority complex in the South Bronx, was ever once a play area for children.
“If you didn’t tell me, I’d still be thinking that was part of the post office parking lot — and I always asked myself, ‘Why [is] that so big,’ “ he told a reporter.
The location is one of the 89 NYCHA playgrounds — more than one out of 10 citywide — closed to the public due to unsafe conditions.
The scheduled repairs at those locations, and in other spots in need of fixes, were stalled by NYCHA’s COVID-19 funding moratorium. One expert shown pictures of some battered structures currently in use said the equipment should be buried at sea.
Meanwhile, residents say they’ve been waiting for years for the cash-strapped housing authority to deliver promised overhauls.
While the fiscal freeze has been lifted with the city emerging from the pandemic, many of the would-be recreational areas still have no public deadlines for completion — leaving thousands of families in the lurch.
NYCHA has long struggled to maintain and modernize its 710 playgrounds. Some are decades old, covered in layers of peeling paint and bolstered by makeshift repairs, while others have been demolished or cordoned off and virtually abandoned.
“How can you make a child believe they have worth when they are living in that kind of environment?” said Miriam Shanderson, a resident of the Polo Grounds Towers complex in Upper Manhattan since 1980.
Shanderson, who has raised 30 foster children, noted many left the city after reaching adulthood.
“They don’t want to think of the way they grew up,” said Shanderson, 59. “It was really difficult.”
Funding Yet to Be Spent
NYCHA’s 20-year Physical Needs Assessment for all its playgrounds, released four years ago, estimates it will cost $63 million to tackle the needed fixes throughout the system.
Approximately $31 million has already been set aside from a mix of city and state discretionary grants from elected officials, internal funding, and a relatively small amount in private and nonprofit investment.
But in some cases, it can take years before the money is ever spent.
In 2014, City Councilmember Mark Treyger set aside $100,000 for playground repairs at Coney Island’s O’Dwyer Gardens that have yet to be done.
NYCHA noted that the upgrades are tied to broader Superstorm Sandy-related work that are in part covered by Federal Emergency Management Agency funding. The playground overhaul is estimated to finally be finished in late 2022.
The authority says it costs an estimated $500,000 on average to replace a playground, a figure that varies depending on size and equipment.
“NYCHA is committed to ensuring all of its recreational areas are safe and we continue to make significant progress towards repairing and upgrading our playgrounds,” said Rochel Leah Goldblatt, a NYCHA spokesperson.
But Roslyn Carpao has never been able to visit the playground near her Hunts Point Avenue Rehab apartment since she’s been living there.
“I’ve been here since I was 10-years-old and never in my life have I seen that gate open,” she said.
Now, at 16, her associations with the space are dominated by the stories she was told by her mom about the playground, which she passes daily on her way to summer school.
“My mom used to tell me that people climb the fence to inject, smoke and sniff drugs,” she said. “But I haven’t seen that extreme yet.”
Should Be ‘Dumped at Sea’
In the nearby Mitchel Houses, NYCHA has spent more than five years trying to overhaul a playground by Alexander Avenue, according to residents. The spot currently consists of a series of poles surrounded by weeds.
Iris Hernandez, 56, who visits her ailing mother there every day, says whenever she asks workers about the site, they tell her they need to “cut the grass first” and “give the poles time to dry.”
“I know paint dries slow, but not five years!” she said.
Hernandez sometimes takes her grandchildren to play in the sprinklers behind the building. “I worry, though, because I can’t see them,” she said.
Goldblatt said the weed-filled site is “still under evaluation” and declined to detail why it has taken so long for work to begin or offer an estimated completion date.
Some playgrounds remain open despite years of neglect and equipment that’s seen far better days. That includes a play area at the Gravesend Houses in Brooklyn where plywood boards are used to block certain spots.
One safety playground expert who saw photos from that location said a matter of time before a child is seriously injured or worse.
“That’s stuff that goes out on a barge and gets dumped at sea to form a reef,” said Thom Thompson, a playground safety consultant based in Issaquah, Washington.
NYCHA has taken steps to improve its playground inspection system since THE CITY revealed in June 2019 that checks hadn’t happened for more than a year.
The authority last year created a unit composed of in-house maintenance workers trained by staff from the city’s Parks Department. They conducted playground inspections each month by going down a checklist of areas to review.
Thompson said playground inspectors should be certified by the National Park and Recreation Association, which conducts three-day courses throughout the country. He also noted that any playground built prior to 1991 does not meet industry standards based on federal guidelines and should be replaced.
It is unclear how many spots in NYCHA developments date that far back.
‘She Needs to Get Out’
Several states have enacted laws to require public playgrounds to be compliant with the national standards created by the American Society for Testing and Materials and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Lawmakers in New York do not appear to have made any such proposals.
A 2018 report by city Comptroller Scott Stringer deemed 70% of NYCHA playgrounds in “unsatisfactory” condition, with some posing glaring safety hazards, such as jagged metal.
“For years, we have been pushing NYCHA to inspect and remedy dangerous conditions at its playgrounds, but for too long NYCHA has continued to let children down,” Stringer said in a statement last week. “As we emerge from this pandemic, every child deserves safe places to play, and NYCHA has had more than enough time to put its playgrounds in shape.”
As for Vargas, he takes his toddler to a neighborhood park, three times a week, after working at the local barber shop.
He also put together a makeshift swing at home for the tyke, but he’s hoping the playground outside his building gets fixed soon.
“She needs to get out,” he said.