The Secret History of New York's Playgrounds


In a great piece for Cabinet, James Trainor tells the tale of New York's adventure playgrounds of the 1960s and '70s -- how they flourished in reaction to the antiseptic old playspaces that planners like Robert Moses had imposed on the city, and how they declined in an era obsessed with safety and liability. Here's how the article starts:

I'll pin the blame on Robert Moses for this one.

Hippies overthrow the WPA.

After all, it was one of his playgrounds, one of the safe, drab, battleship-gray ones whose WPA-era design had changed little since Moses assumed power as New York City's parks commissioner in 1934 (during his twenty-six-year reign, 650 playgrounds were built). The banal swing-set. The bone-jarring seesaw. The galvanized slide. The joyless sprinkler. Each static feature was set far apart from the others, as if to avoid cross-contamination of respective functions, all of it embedded in a vast expanse of summer-blistered asphalt and concrete. I was five years old and with a sizable gash in my forehead, blood streaming down my face (eight stitches, lots of iodine, Roosevelt Hospital emergency room); it was my first and last major mishap in a New York playground, one that instantly implanted a lifelong phobia of pebble-dashed concrete. Along with asphalt (a "resilient" surface, Moses once proudly explained, that prevents children from "digging and eliminates dust"), it was the most unlikely play surface ever concocted by bureaucratic city planners charged with the safety of Gotham's young. (An artificial agglomerate, it was thought to give traction to little feet running through sprinkler basins, but had the added benefit of acting like a human cheese-grater for unexpectedly airborne kids.)

The obvious irony in all this was that this standard-issue trauma did not occur in what the kids in my Upper West Side neighborhood fondly nicknamed "the dangerous playground" just up the hill -- the one that called out with its siren song of massive timbered ziggurats and stepped pyramids with wide undulating slides, the vertiginous fire-pole plunging though tiered treehouses, the Indiana Jones-style rope bridge, the zip line, the Brutalist-Aztec watercourses, and tunnel networks. There, I received not so much as a scratch. And there wasn't just one dangerous playground; these so-called adventure playgrounds were sprouting up everywhere, siphoning off, Pied-Piper-like, any kid with a scrap of derring-do suddenly bored to death with the old playgrounds, places that now had all the grim appeal of a municipal parking lot.

Read the whole thing here. Via Lenore Skenazy.

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  1. how they declined in an era obsessed with safety and liability

    Hell, that probably killed the WPA-style playgrounds too. I have fond memories of falling off monkey bars into sharp cinders that probably came from the county incinerator.

  2. Very similar to this--and I don't know what it's like now--was Sesame Place when it opened. I went there are a kid and it was full of water playgrounds, humongous rope nets and bridges that you could climb high into the air on, jungle gyms that were floored with pools, and the like. It was incredibly fun, and I went there a few times and absolutely loved it every time. I thought about it recently and just assumed it couldn't possibly be as awesome as it was back then, but who knows?

    And that reminds me of Jesse's great reason piece on crazy amusement parks.

  3. As a kid i shot guns, fought dogs (it felt like fight but in realty if the dog was really fighting i would be dead) crossed rivers on horse back, swam in irrigation ditches, inter tubed down rivers, road bikes off of 5 foot cliffs all without an adult seen for hours.

    NY in the 60s and 70s was for pussies.

  4. Some of my fondest memories were at local arcades.

    ...Okay, I'm cheating a little bit, as I consider Chuck-E-Cheese to qualify as an arcade. But that, the one at the skating rink, the one at the theater, and the one in the mall occupied much of my time from 4 to 11 years old.

    Mortal Kombat, Cruisin' USA, House of the Dead...Man, the 90s were fun.

  5. ^Everyone who posted above is old^

    1. I'm old too. There wasn't a playground of any type anywhere near me in suburban Philadelphia in the late 60's, early 70's. Just big lots where no one cared if a group of kids started playing there - big green lawns and fresh air. Then came that darned "Fat Albert" cartoon and I realized that Negro kids might be having just as much fun in narrow city alleys. It's not fair!

  6. I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on 'em. Give me five bees for a quarter, you'd say.

  7. Well now that jsut makes a ll kinds of sense dude.


  8. I think that much of humanity has an innate need to push boundaries. If you make our daily lives as safe as possible, we will find ways to make things risky. In general, making things risky in overly safe-i-fied environments, results in much worse tragedies than in more dangerous environs.

  9. In Moses' defense, the playgrounds he originally built were better, but he had to make them the suckier because the homeless were using them for shelter during the Depression. It's why all the playgrounds in NYC have fences built around them, not to keep kids in, but to keep bums out.

    When I was a kid on Long Island, my entire neighborhood chipped in to completely rebuild a really awesome playground. We built this massive wooden castle looking thing that was full of hidden tunnels to crawl through, towers to capture, tires to jump on etc. They ripped it out a few years ago because the school district said it was a liability. Aside from the odd splinter, I don't remember a single kid getting hurt on it when I was a kid. Fuck lawyers.

  10. And yet ironically it was the Central Park Playground scandal that ultimately ended Moses' career. Irony's a b*tch.

  11. I'm not sure where the author grew up in NYC, but in the late 60s the playgrounds in upper Manhattan (Inwood) were covered with rubber mats, which really helped if you fell the 7 feet from the top of the monkey bars. There was a sign in each playgroud giving credit for the mats to Mayor Lindsey.

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