Volume 73, Number 49 | April 7 - 13, 2004

It’s kids versus cars in an East Village schoolyard

By Tessa Huxley

At lunchtime on an early spring day you can find several young teens awkwardly hanging from a small jungle gym in a crowded schoolyard. Their knees nearly touching the ground, they laugh and clown around, surrounded by the chain-link fences that separate them from a dead-end street of city housing, renovated tenements and garden plots — and a small yard full of School Safety and other vehicles. When asked about their lunchtime or after-school recreational options, kids said:

“This yard was made for little kids — we need hoops to play basketball” (Malek, seventh grade).

“It is really easy to get hurt by the ball when kids play football — we can’t go anywhere! (Inan, seventh grade).

“It is dangerous with the fencing [for repairs]; we eighth-graders have large bodies — we keep bumping into each other” (Zoe, eighth grade).

The “parking” area currently being used by the School Safety Division motor pool is a much needed and previously well-used playground. The play lot’s history parallels that of the Robert Simon complex school building located at 600 Avenue B, between Fourth and Sixth Sts., on the Lower East Side.

In the1980s when the local headquarters of the School Safety Division was established in the building, the facility was not fully utilized by its then-sole occupant, P.S. 64, a K-6 elementary school. Like many of the local public schools during that era, it was operating at extremely low enrollment. At that time the play area was transformed into a parking lot for the Safety Division motor pool and personal vehicles.

Times have changed. The Earth School, a progressive pre-K-through-sixth-grade alternative elementary school created by parents and educators from the East Village, opened in the building in 1992. Tompkins Square Middle School opened in the building in fall 2001. As these three schools have grown to some 800 pupils, the School Safety Division has slowly been moved out. The headquarters was temporarily moved to 110 Livingston St. in Brooklyn in September 2003 and will soon permanently relocate to Long Island City. In 2004 only their motor pool remains.

As a result, no decent play for the students area exists. There is a small playground that is acceptable for one of the two elementary schools but not for both to use at one time. The current building renovation (scheduled to last two years) has rendered the tiny play space nearly unusable, even for the elementary school students. There is no outdoor recreation space for the middle school students for either their lunch break or after-school activities. Several foundations have offered to renovate the lot, once it is emptied, to make playground and sports areas appropriate for the middle school children.

In the spring and again in the fall of 2003 all three schools wrote to the commissioner of the Police Department and the schools chancellor to request assistance resolving this matter.

In late December 2003, in response to a letter-writing campaign by parents and students to the school and police authorities as well as to local politicians, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm of the Department of Education paid a visit to the building and promised to help open a play area for the kids. In subsequent e-mail communication, she has been unable to provide any timeframe for doing so but has expressed thanks to the community for its patience. There has been no response from the Police Department to date on the status of permanently moving out the School Safety Division vehicles.

The issue is simple: children or cars.

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