Parents say swing sets and other equipment at St. Mary's Playground are in desperate need of upgrades.

Play space lacking for local kids

Despite the scarcity of parkland and the popularity of St. Mary’s, its playgrounds are scruffy and its equipment is outdated-and, sometimes, dangerous.

Parents say swing sets and other equipment at St. Mary's Playground are in desperate need of upgrades.
Parents say swing sets and other equipment at St. Mary’s Playground are in desperate need of upgrades.

Area playgrounds sorely need upgrading, say parents

St. Mary’s Park, at just over 35 acres, is the biggest stretch of green space in Mott Haven.  In a community with less than an acre of parkland per 1,000 residents, the park is a popular spot for families from surrounding neighborhoods.

Despite the scarcity of parkland and the popularity of St. Mary’s, its playgrounds are scruffy and its equipment is outdated-and, sometimes, dangerous.

“This is really old,” said Yarii Rivera, 19, who was leaving the playground with her little brother.  “I played here and it was the same.”

The three playgrounds in St. Mary’s are busiest in the summer months, according to Mariela Hernandez, but she still brings her youngest, Allison, over to play when the autumn weather is nice.   Other playgrounds are closer to Hernandez’s home on Courtland Avenue, but she says they’re too close to some of the housing projects there, so she brings Allison, 7, several blocks east to St. Mary’s Playground South.

“When school gets out, everyone comes here,” Hernandez said. “Too many children; not enough places to play.”

The playground has two aging jungle gyms, separated by a fenced-in row of swings.  The rusting steel jungle gyms, painted yellow, red and green, have been there for as long as some residents can remember.

A path to the north leads to a similar playground that shows the same signs of wear.  To the east, crumbling concrete bleachers with no seats surround a dilapidated ball field. Beyond it is a third playground, built more recently than the other two, but much smaller than they are.

“When you walk through the park you see decades of neglect,” said Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates.  “It’s really sad because it’s a heavily used park and a great resource.”

About a half dozen parents who visited the park on a sunny November weekday had similar complaints.  The playground is too old and too small for the amount of use it gets at peak times. And it doesn’t provide enough safety for smaller children, they said.

One park goer, Michael Olivo, remembered daily visits to St. Mary’s South during his childhood.  Now Olivo, 23, brings his own two children there.  He wishes the playground was bigger and safer.  His 2-year old son ran into the metal slide a few months ago and had to get six stitches on his head, Olivo said.

“I never had a problem with the park until my son cracked his head open,” Olivo said.  “If they had a plastic slide that would never have happened.”

As the Bronx parks system commemorates its 125th year in 2013, park advocacy groups said they hope to improve Mott Haven parks with federal money.  New Yorkers For Parks spokesman James Yolles said the group is working on an assessment of the area while the Trust for Public Land has plans for two new playgrounds at local schools in 2014.

Parks Department spokesman Nathan Arnosti said that Parks had updated pathways and sidewalks in St. Mary’s last year, but did not respond when asked if there were any plans for its playgrounds.

Despite Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio’s pledge to be mindful of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, residents were skeptical that he would make any improvements at their local playground.

“I hope he does,” Olivo said, as his 5-year old daughter enjoyed the same swings he had played on.  “But people say they’ll do stuff and they don’t really do it.”

Reagan Higgs moved to Mott Haven with her two children two years ago.  She said the playgrounds were significantly smaller than those they had visited in Park Slope.

“Coming from Brooklyn, it’s a different kind of experience,” she said, then shrugged. “It is what it is.”

About 28,000 children reside in the district that St. Mary’s Park serves, according to the most recent census data. Most of the families who come to St. Mary’s Playground South are Hispanic. Fewer children live in Park Slope. The median household income in the neighborhoods surrounding St. Mary’s falls just under $25,000 per year. In Park Slope the median income is just under $95,000.

Part of the problem in lower income areas is that parents set their expectations too low, Hernandez said.  She said apathy was a big reason that the local playgrounds have not been expanded or updated over the years.

“Too many people here just say ‘It’s fine,’” Hernandez said. “When the parents complain, things get better.”