Safer play is aim of park

Playground makeover to serve as model to deter injuries, crime

July 11, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

At ABC Park in Southwest Baltimore yesterday, 9-year-old Noel Johnson was hanging from the monkey bars when his sweaty left hand slipped from the brand-new bright blue playground equipment. He fell 5 feet, landed awkwardly on his rear end and back, and began to grimace, as if he expected to be bruised.

"Wow!" said Noel, bouncing up painlessly off a bed of sawdust and felt carpet. "I'm OK! I'm OK!"

Noel's soft landing marked the first small triumph of a new safety campaign by the government, nonprofit groups and the private sector to turn swings and slides into safe, crime-fighting tools. Yesterday morning, about 50 residents of two nearby neighborhoods gathered to celebrate the $90,000 ABC Park playground that is expected to serve as a model for the makeover of as many as 30 other playgrounds over the next two years.

The idea, say city and nonprofit officials, is to transform playgrounds that are dangerous, asphalt-covered drug markets into havens that cushion communities from criminals.

In the spirit of the day, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, representing the state Hot Spots program that has helped fund the effort, dropped by and swooshed down a red plastic slide.

"We see this as the first of many playgrounds to convert," said Carol Gilbert, executive director of the Neighborhood Design Center, which helped the neighborhoods plan and win funding to renovate ABC Park. "That does not mean it's anywhere near enough."

A recent survey by several Baltimore nonprofit groups found that 139 of the 239 park playgrounds -- and 24 of 53 city school playgrounds -- are built on concrete, asphalt or hard dirt surfaces that can turn falls into broken bones. Southwestern District Maj. John Bergbower says public spaces like ABC Park are attractive to the drug trade. Susan DeFrancesco, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, says about 60 percent of city playgrounds are "extremely unsafe."

The typical scene, say experts, is the bleak playground in Pigtown's Carroll Park, less than a mile from ABC. There, paint peels from the broken swing set and climbing bars. The concrete surface is littered with broken glass and scarred with 18-inch-tall weeds that have grown through cracks. On a visit last week, a half-dozen young adults buying and selling drugs were the only people there.

In Baltimore, the Neighborhood Design Center has promised to help redesign 10 more playgrounds in the next year. And, with a bond issue, city parks officials could fix up as many 18 playgrounds by 2001. But taken together, those initiatives would address one-fifth of the problem sites.

The ABC Park had several advantages that made it ideal for a pilot project. Community leaders across the area -- from Marty Howe in Mill Hill to Connie Fowler in Carrollton Ridge -- knew each other and wanted to fix up ABC. And while the park had fallen on hard times -- with open-air drug dealing and a decaying climbing apparatus of old pipes and tires called the Monster -- ABC had the advantages of a popular location next to a shopping center and post office.

Working with the Neighborhood Design Center, Mill Hill and Carrollton Ridge joined together and earned $45,000 in grants from the city housing department, which they matched with cash and in-kind donations from companies like Ruppert Landscaping, which planted 20 shade trees.

"You can't rely on the city to do everything," said Fowler, president of the Carrollton Ridge Association.

Two new climbing apparatus were built on soft, padded landing areas. The larger is a brightly colored, interconnected system of four blue ladders, a half-dozen yellow walkways, two sets of hand bars, four red slides, and a bent mirror that makes 12-year-olds look 10 feet tall in the reflection.

""Those young derelicts will have all this nice equipment broken and covered with graffiti in six months," said Sam Kendrick, 70, a resident of Mill Hill for 42 years. "I'm afraid the drug trade is just too strong here."

Residents say they will help maintain the playground, and police promise to keep a close eye on the site at night.

"It's the neatest playground I've seen," said Anthony Duncan, 13, traveling headfirst down a slide yesterday. "Don't worry. We'll keep it looking good."

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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