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The Padlocked Playgrounds

The basketball courts at PS 92 in Harlem, the handball court at MS 44 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the red monkey bars with the spiral slide at PS 41 in Greenwich Village all have been closed to the public this summer. Operated by the Department of Education, these playgrounds are just three of the 746 schoolyards citywide that are padlocked on weekends and during the summer.

“From our point of view, it defies reason when an asset like a playground is sitting idle in a peak playtime for children like weekends and after school,” said Jeffrey Raven, a father of two teenagers and resident of the area around PS 41 in Greenwich Village. He has tried unsuccessfully for years to have the playground open during the summer. "We have a couple of parks that are a bit far away but what is missing is a place where a kid can learn how to ride a bike," Raven said

Now, City Councilmember Gale Brewer of the Upper West Side is campaigning to open schoolyards when school is out of session. She has introduced a resolution in City Council calling for hearings this fall on the feasibility of turning school playgrounds into community recreation centers. Brewer said the 746 playgrounds make up 948 acres of unused public land, an area larger than Central Park. Major barriers to opening the playgrounds are funding, liability and staffing, said Brewer.

The parks department maintains 257 playgrounds adjacent to schools that are open all summer. One way to open the 746 playgrounds that are now closed in the summer would be to have the parks department take over all the schoolyards and maintain them, Brewer said. “There aren’t any problems at the parks department-run school yards,” said Brewer. “The parks department opens and closes the school yards in the evening and it works great.”

The parks department declined to comment on Brewer's suggestion, referring calls to the Department of Education. A spokeswoman for the department, Margie Feinberg, said principals who want their schoolyards available for community use may keep them open on their own.

Tyler Smith, education specialist at Brewer's office, said it is unfair to ask principals to bear the cost of keeping schoolyards open in the summer. “The principals’ key concerns are the students and education,” Smith said. “Public recreation should not be their concern.”

Another model, Brewer said, might be a program of the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit organization. Currently there are 17 schoolyards in the city that were constructed and are operated by the Trust for Public Land through City Spaces, a program aimed at providing recreation areas for city children and communities. The Trust for Public Land works with the education department’s Office of Strategic Planning and private contributors to finance reconstruction of playgrounds for schools with extensive after school programs.

The schoolyards reconstructed through City Spaces stay open for community use after school until dark, on weekends and over the summer. For now, however, the Trust for Public Land has no immediate plans to take part in Brewer’s campaign, in part because of the enormous costs involved.

Brewer said recreation space is badly needed in low-income neighborhoods. “There is a standard in the city where 2.5 acres of open space is supposed to be available for every 1,000 residents but most of the low-income communities don’t even have that,” Brewer said. According to the Department of City Planning, 90 percent of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods fail to meet that standard.

"For the kids, there is no other ample recreation space unless you count the streets,” said Kareen Muhammad, a child counselor who lives near PS 92 and PS 175 in Harlem, both of which keep their yards open after school but closed when school is not in session. “Sometimes kids will slip through the fence or find a way to get inside just to play basketball,” he added. “When the schoolyard is open, the kids are playing ball and use the place. Now the kids are on the street,” said Muhammad.

This topic page has been adapted from an article that originally appeared on the pages of our partner, Inside Schools, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.


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