Volume 79, Number 12 | Aug. 26 - Sept. 1, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Photos by William Alatriste, NYC Council

Councilmember Rosie Mendez channeled her inner kid on some new, state-of-the-art play equipment at the official ribbon cutting for the Tompkins Square playground renovation last week, above. Below, former Giants running back Tiki Barber tried out a slide. Congressmember Carolyn Maloney, Borough President Scott Stringer and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe were among other officials also at the event.

New Tompkins Square playground is an overdue hit

By Harry Bartle

Much to the delight of parents and children throughout the East Village, the Tompkins Square Park playground reopened last month after almost a year under construction. Designed by Parks Department architect Gail Wittwer-Laird, the $1.1 million renovation has outfitted the playground with state-of-the-art jungle-gym structures and a distinctly modern sensibility.

Before being closed for restoration on Aug. 25 of last year, Tompkins Square’s main playground had fallen into a state of semi-decay marked by broken slides “fixed” by construction netting and a noticeable shortage of swings. The playground was originally scheduled to reopen this spring “at the latest,” according to a statement Wittwer-Laird made to The Villager last October; but an extended delay left locals crammed into Tompkins Square’s other, smaller playgrounds up until July 16.

“The wait certainly was frustrating,” said Eileen Johnson, director of the Little Missionary Day Nursery on St. Mark’s Place, who uses the playground quite a bit as part of the nursery’s daily activities. Johnson said she often noticed a complete lack of activity during the construction. “After September, there were long periods of time when no work was being done at all,” she said.

Worried that the play area would not reopen by summer, Johnson began a correspondence with the Parks Department. 

2“They gave me one date after another [for the playground’s reopening] and kept missing them,” said Johnson, who has been taking nursery schoolchildren there since 1987. “Finally, I started asking parents to call 311 and complain. That’s when things seemed to start moving.”

With the neighborhood’s prime playground off limits for so long, East Village parents like Marnie Ann Joyce had to search elsewhere for play areas suitable for her children, ages 2 and 6. 

“We found other places to go,” said Joyce, “the playground on First St. and First Ave., mostly. The other Tompkins Square Park playgrounds were overcrowded and overfilled with bigger kids who overwhelmed my little ones.”

Wittwer-Laird, who has two children of her own, ages 6 and 7, and has long been a frequenter of the park herself, attributed the missed deadlines to Mother Nature. 

“Weather played a huge role in the delay,” she wrote in an e-mail. “This was one of the rainiest winters and springs on record. The new safety surface could not be installed until the subsurface was sufficiently cured and dry and the temperatures were consistently warmer.”

Both Joyce and Johnson, however, had trouble buying that explanation. 

“There was a lot of time before the rainy days came when work just stopped,” said Joyce. “It was too long to be without such a major part of our children’s lives.”

Although it may have been a long time coming, many parents seem to agree that the redesign is ultimately a success. Sarah Roebuck, mother of 3-year-old Axl, has turned the trip to the park into an almost daily routine. 

“We love the new playground,” said Roebuck. 

Pam Strohm-Gorden, Axl’s grandmother, added, “The only thing is that everyone seems to love it, so we have to get there pretty early to avoid the crowds.” 

Indeed, on two recent visits to the park, the spacious playground was jammed with kids chasing, climbing and yelling to their heart’s content.

Renovated for “environmental, aesthetic and, above all, safety reasons,” the new playground features separate structures for both little and big children, eco-friendly sprinklers, an all-new sandbox, child-oriented benches, a popular rubber safety surface and other interesting additions.

“The benches are great,” said Joyce, referring to the small, shaded benches and swinging chairs located in various spots around the playground. “They allow the kids to take a small break without coming over and whining to their parents, so they can keep playing, but in a calm and relaxed way.”

The redesign also took care to fence off the playground’s infamous “Pee-Pee Tree,” a popular spot among younger users to relieve themselves without having to interrupt play for too long. However, there are two other trees that playground parents have speculated may assume the role of the Pee-Pee Tree in the near future.

Despite its spiffy new look, the playground is not without its faults, in the view of parents. Several were quite upset with the proximity of the new sprinklers to the sandbox, which has led to clogged drains and some awfully dirty clothes. 

“At first they had people there telling kids not to mix [the sand and water],” said Johnson. “Then they had people there sweeping out the sand. But now, there’s no one.”

One problem, if not the biggest, concerns the new climbing walls — short, little walls with small, hand-sized rocks scattered across them. Not that there’s anything wrong with climbing — though it seems the walls largely go unused — but they block sight lines for naturally anxious parents that need to keep an eye on their children.

“With all of those solid walls everywhere you can’t see through any apparatus to see a kid who might be on the other side,” said Joyce. “This is the main thing that makes me not want to spend a lot of time in this park. Instead of sitting, relaxing and keeping an eye on my kids, I’m either completely losing track of one or the other or walking around to find one, only to find that I’ve lost the other in the meantime.”

All things considered, though, the renovation seems to be a welcome improvement to Tompkins Square. 

“I can remember when we were picking up syringes from under the mats in the ’80s,” said Johnson. “It sure looks better now.”


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