Neglect is taking all the fun out of city's playgrounds

Program to repair lots at a near standstill

April 30, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

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.

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