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Neglect is taking all the fun out of city's playgrounds; Program to repair lots at a near standstill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two-year-old Keon Wallace struggled to the top of a jungle gym at Northeast Baltimore's Briscoe Park last week. From a height of 8 feet, he began sliding down a nearby pole, lost his grip and fell to the ground.

If the play lot had been safe he would have crashed into forgiving rubber or a foot of wood chips.

Because Keon fell in a typical Baltimore play lot, he went straight into concrete.

Eighty percent of the city's roughly 300 play lots are unsafe for children, according to a survey conducted in the fall by the Playing Safe Coalition, a group of nonprofit organizations.

All over Baltimore, in middle-class neighborhoods as well as in communities wracked with poverty, forlorn play lots are exposing children to serious injury, according to safety experts.

"You turn away for just a moment on this playground, your kid ends up hurt," Keon's mother, Bessie Woods, said as she comforted her son after the fall.

"Accidents like this happen here every week."

National Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines, -- passed as law in some states and used in the survey as a benchmark -- call for all play equipment to stand on thick rubber cushions or wood chips. They also ban protruding bolts that can snag children's clothing and call for surfaces to be smooth and forgiving, with no rust, jagged edges or splintered wood.

But the surfaces of city play lots are frequently concrete or hard-packed dirt, the kind of surfaces that each year cause most of the estimated 211,000 serious playground injuries nationwide. The equipment is often old and rusty or splintered, resulting in children getting cuts and gashes.

Some equipment is so poorly designed it virtually invites kids to take long tumbles to the ground.

And the lots are often not well kept. Foot-tall weeds are common, as are shards of glass, bullet casings and condoms.

"A child could easily die while playing on a Baltimore playground," said Carol Gilbert, director of the Neighborhood Design Center, a nonprofit group working to fill in where the city has failed and initiate playground construction.

"Just what does it say to our children that the city is willing to let their public play spaces go to pot and look so bad? Does that tell our kids we don't value them?" asked Iris T. Smith, a Northwest Baltimore community leader who complains that in her part of town only one play lot is available.

No studies have been done on injuries in city play lots, experts say.

Stalled repair efforts

The Department of Recreation and Parks controls 226 play lots; others are operated by the city housing authority and the school system.

Though these agencies have been aware of the problem for more than a decade and though the city in 1988 began to slowly renovate playgrounds at an average of six each year, lately the effort has stalled.

Only three Baltimore play lots have been reconstructed in the past three years, this despite having enough money -- approximately $1.8 million from the state's Program Open Space -- budgeted to improve 18 playgrounds.

City officials, attempting to explain the slowdown, blame budget woes and bureaucratic missteps. The new mayor, for example, points the finger at a failed personnel move by the previous administration, and has moved already to correct it.

The same officials, looking for ways to spend money more wisely, are considering a radical change: sharply reducing the number of lots available to children.

Creativity needed

Play-lot safety advocates throughout Baltimore argue City Hall has failed to reach out into the nonprofit and business worlds to find solutions.

"It's a matter of having the political will and focus, and sometimes finding creative ways to finance change," said Susan DeFrancesco, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health who studies play-lot safety.

DeFrancesco pointed out that Baltimore's rebuilding efforts severely lag behind those in Boston and Pittsburgh, two midsize East Coast cities hailed for their play-lot construction campaigns.

A sampling of playgrounds in a cross-section of city locations highlights what city government has to deal with.

Widespread problems

At the Perkins Homes housing projects, north of Little Italy, what little play equipment there is was installed in the mid-1960s. Some is in a cramped lot next to a housing authority boiler room that continuously hisses. Part of the lot is bordered by a fence topped with barbed wire. A few years back about 5 inches of concrete was poured atop the play lot, leaving the equipment partly buried so that the slide sends kids crashing onto pavement.

A Gwynns Falls park play lot in Southwest Baltimore at Hurley and Wilkens avenues sits in a gulch a block away from the district police headquarters and near a Police Athletic League center. There, on cracked blacktop shot through by foot-tall weeds, lie two little-used, broken swing sets and two rusty slides.

In a comfortably middle-class neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore is Leith Walk Elementary School, with a student body of about 1,000. The school's play lot is surrounded by a tattered chain link fence and has broken climbing apparatus, splintered play-horses and a swing set with no swings. It was recently condemned by the city.

"With nothing to play on, our kids go stir crazy during recess," Principal Edna Greer said. "It's a shame."

West Baltimore's Harlem Park neighborhood is a 40-square-block area with 29 small playgrounds sprinkled throughout, each built in 1959 and hardly updated since. None of the playgrounds is "anywhere near safe," according to City Councilman Norman Handy. The councilman toured the playgrounds with a reporter recently, noting the trash, concrete surfaces, decrepit, mangled equipment and the carcass of a pit bull that had been left to rot.

Attracting drug dealers

The lots in Harlem Park are so bad and so inviting to drug dealers and prostitutes, said Handy, a minister, that the community wants all of them taken down by the city and turned into parking spaces or grass yards.

The play lots in Baltimore are in such a disheveled state that many are hardly used. "Kids can tell when a place is dangerous," Gilbert said. "They're no dummies."

A recent Saturday trip to five Baltimore play lots in the northwestern, western and southern parts of Baltimore demonstrated Gilbert's point. Despite good weather, there were no children playing on them. Instead, children played in the streets, sometimes near dangerous drug corners.

Now City Hall is scrambling to make the lots inviting, and safe.

When asked how to account for the city's three-year trickle of play-lot construction, Mayor Martin O'Malley places much of the blame on former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

In 1997, Schmoke shifted responsibility for playground construction from the Recreation and Parks Department to the Department of Public Works, an agency viewed in some quarters of City Hall as lacking the acumen or will to improve playgrounds effectively.

"Let's just say maybe it wasn't a priority" for public works, Deputy Mayor David Scott said.

O'Malley is planning to put responsibility back into the hands of the parks department.

In January, the mayor moved Gennady Schwartz -- in charge of playground building for the parks department from 1988 to 1997 but transferred by Schmoke to public works, where he oversaw highway construction projects -- back to his old position.

'Liberation' for parks dept.

The reassignment is seen by the mayor, and playground advocates who admire Schwartz's commitment to kids' play spaces, as the key to getting new playgrounds built.

"Gennady Schwartz was handcuffed" and kept from working on play lots while at public works, said the mayor, who added that he is working toward the "liberation" of the parks department.

Schwartz hopes to spearhead reconstruction of 14 sites over the next two years and also plans to begin construction by the end of the fall on what would be the crown jewel of Baltimore playgrounds, a $1 million playground on an acre of open space in Druid Hill Park near the Baltimore Zoo.

Lack of money

But the parks department faces significant challenges, chief among them a lack of money.

Aside from a $1 million bond issue passed by city voters last fall for play-lot development, the parks department relies on a budget that averages about $600,000 a year.

Since the average cost of reconstruction is $100,000, Schwartz says, the city can hardly make huge strides in solving the playground problem.

The parks department's toughest task is deciding which playgrounds should be supported and improved, according to department director Thomas Overton.

High-crime neighborhoods often have difficulty supporting their lots, failing to help public agencies perform maintenance and keep drug use away.

Overton, calling the playground woes a "grave concern" in his department, said he will improve lots only if communities prove they have the desire to support a new playground.

Consolidation considered

The budget crunch has the parks department floating the idea of consolidating playgrounds and clearing many of the dangerous lots.

The city would concentrate instead on rebuilding a few well-chosen play lots in each community, possibly focusing on putting safe play equipment at each elementary school.

Parks officials say the idea will be discussed at a task force meeting planned for next month involving the agencies that deal with play lots and possibly including nonprofit groups.

If approved, a consolidation plan would be presented to community groups during the summer.

The city is also trying to streamline its bureaucracy, an important step because responsibilities for play-lot oversight and design are not clear-cut.

The housing authority and school system have little money and no plan for play lots. Public works is in the mix, responsible for play-lot construction. The parks department is in charge of designing the playgrounds they control.

There seems to be no overall plan, though the parks department wants that to change.

"We want to take the lead on this issue" within city government, Overton said.

The parks director added that he hopes the issue of responsibility will be hammered out in next month's meeting and that the city's nonprofit groups will be more involved.

Pittsburgh, Boston models

In its search for answers, play-lot advocates say, the city should examine Pittsburgh and Boston, which have relied on creative approaches and political will to push new construction.

Four years ago Pittsburgh, which has 169 playgrounds, decided to bring all its lots up to Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines, a move given momentum by the firm backing of Mayor Tom Murphy and energized by the death of a child on a playground in suburban Pittsburgh.

Spending $10 million during a time of budget difficulty, Pittsburgh has revamped 100 playgrounds since 1996, adding new equipment and costly synthetic surfaces. The city expects to have all of its playgrounds redone within the next two years.

In Boston, a $14 million partnership between a number of foundations in the area and city government has led to the reconstruction of 22 of Boston's elementary and junior high play lots since 1997. Fifty more lots are scheduled to be redone in the coming three years, with foundations frequently funding educational programs conducted at the lots.

In Baltimore, the effort limps along, leaning heavily on the nonprofit world, social workers and outraged parents to scrape together enough money to redo playgrounds piecemeal. The state provided $1 million in its latest supplemental budget to city nonprofit groups for new play lots.

Mothers' campaign

Part of that money will go to the Perkins Homes housing projects.

Three mothers who live there -- Janice Stephens, Thomasine Harrison and Liwanda Woolridge -- have had enough. Tired of having their children come home with bumps, bruises and cuts from their two play areas, the women formed the Perkins Association of Mothers in September.

The women talked to the Neighborhood Design Center, which was taken with their commitment and ability to gather support from other parents.

When the center received funding from the newly approved state budget to begin improving play lots, the Perkins Association of Mothers was awarded money to redo two playgrounds.

"We're tired of kids coming away from playtime crying and wailing," Stephens said as she picked up her son, Johnathan Purgat, 4, who had just gone down a slide onto concrete and was complaining that his back hurt.

"We're tired of looking at equipment that says to us, 'You don't matter because you are nothing but poor.' We're tired and we're scraping together the money and the support to get our kids some real playgrounds."

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