Volume 79, Number 36 | February 10 - 16, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Planting bulbs in Bleecker Street Playground during the Halloween Festival.

Keeping up popular playground is not child’s play

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

On a frigid January morning, Lisa Dow, Lara Mullarkey and Sylvia Morales gathered at Dublin 9, a restaurant overlooking the Bleecker Street Playground, to discuss their most recent accomplishment. 

In December, Friends of Bleecker Street Playground announced that they had succeeded in replacing the sand in the playground.

“Replacing the sand is one our biggest priorities,” Dow said. She has three children, ages 2, 6 and 9, and lives across the street from the playground. 

“Few playgrounds in the city are all sand like this one,” said Mullarkey, Dow’s neighbor and a mother of two. “It is really hard to keep clean; but for the youngest kids, there is no substitute for sand. The city replaces the sand in playgrounds when they can, but often it can be once every decade.”

This year, the new HSBC branch on the corner of W. 11th and Hudson Sts. funded the $5,000 fee. They had to get Parks Department-approved sand, and it was important to HSBC that it be ecologically clean.

The playground acts as a gathering point for local families with small children. In addition to sand, there are a small slide and baby swings.

“It was really great as a newcomer and a new mom,” said Morales, who has a 2-year-old son. Morales moved to the neighborhood last year from Northern California. “It creates a way for parents to get to know each other beyond an acquaintanceship,” she said.

“It is great to meet face to face and share information,” Dow said. “So much of that usually happens through the computer.”

Morales became involved with the group after she attended breakfast for new parents in the playground. Friends of Bleecker Street Playground arrange two new-parent breakfasts a year that draw between 40 and 50 people. 

There are 10 core members of Friends of Bleecker Street Playground and 300 local parents on the mailing list. Five years ago, local parents began meeting about improving the playground’s public bathrooms. Soon, Friends of Bleecker Street Playground began to meet regularly in order to arrange events, fund new initiatives and maintain the facilities.

The group aims to meet once a month, but because of scheduling difficulties involved with small children, they often communicate via e-mail.

“We all bring different skills,” said Dow.

Morales, a former school administrator, is responsible for the Web site.

“I never worked on a Web site before,” she said. “But I guess I have experience multitasking.” 

Friends of Bleecker Street Playground is a nonprofit organization under Open Space Institute, an umbrella organization that seeks to preserve outdoor space and foster a sense of community. 

The group has annual fundraising initiatives, such as “100 for $100”: The goal is to get 100 families to donate $100 to fund events, host concerts and cover operating costs.

“In order to exist, we depend on people donating time and money,” said Mullarkey. 

Friends of Bleecker Street Playground organize many seasonal events. The Halloween Festival, a 20-year-old, neighborhood tradition, is the biggest event of the year. Local restaurants and merchants play a large role in the events. They sign up so that the children can trick-or-treat, they run booths and donate money. Last year, Doodle Doo’s, a hair salon for children, set up a “crazy hair” booth.

The playground hosts an annual holiday tree-lighting ceremony. For the past three years, Gourmet Garage has donated cookies and cider to the event.

“There was so much cider, I had to wheel it back to Gourmet Garage,” said Mullarkey.

In April, the playground will host the third Spring Family Day.

Last year, a snow day prompted an impromptu party, for which 11th St. Cafe donated hot chocolate.

The mothers estimate that they spend four to five days a week in the playground in warmer weather.

“I used to be there every day when my son just started walking. The playground is especially necessary with an active boy,” said Mullarkey. “I would huddle under the slide for shelter if it started drizzling. There is an old Norwegian saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate dress.” 

Mullarkey is working on Grandma’s Garden — she planted bulbs and bushes in the area between the playground and the street.

“There was chicken wire where debris would accumulate,” she said. “It took a lot of money and work to plant.” Families can donate money in commemoration of their grandmothers.

Abingdon Square, Bleecker Street Playground and the plaza south of the playground are linked by their proximity, and also by their cleaning — since the Parks Department cleaning of the three spaces is linked. Because of the amount of foot traffic in the area, the Parks Department does schedule extra garbage collection in busy seasons, “because we asked nicely,” Mullarkey noted.

An allocation from Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s Office is slated for renovating the playground bathrooms this spring.

“It really helped that we are an organization, rather than a few individuals,” Mullarkey said of their group’s clout.

The bathrooms will be cleaner, better ventilated and wheelchair and stroller accessible. 

The playground gets its share of recognition. “Motherhood,” a recent movie staring Uma Thurman, filmed scenes in the playground. In the film, Jodie Foster plays a playground mother being stalked by paparazzi, a character reportedly based on neighborhood resident Sarah Jessica Parker.

Although none of the women had seen the movie, they have indeed encountered paparazzi trying to photograph some of the local celebrities.

“But there haven’t been any major problems,” said Mullarkey. 


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