Playgrounds and Iron Fences: Seward Park's Makeover
By Amy Zimmer
Two skinny, Latina girls with long black ponytails wearing combinations of bright red, pink and purple weave through the equally crayola colorful new jungle gym at the Seward Park Playground. As their grandfather sits reading The Post, the girls, shushing each other's chuckles, try to slink out of his sight through the orange slides, yellow ladders, green poles, blue bridges, red stairs, and pink pillars. The grandfather lets them have their fun as they run around the kid-friendly jungle gym -- a fortress with all rounded edges and multi-levels bearing such names as "north fork" and "motorcycle hill" that sits atop a soft mat-like floor. He yells only when one of the girls is about to be clobbered by a puffball rolling down behind her -- an Asian tot in a red down jacket with stiff sleeves too long for his arms. (While the grandfather yells from his bench, the tot's mom swiftly clears his granddaughter from her son's path.) Like a cartoon world mixed with live action, the saturated colors, smooth surfaces, and open space steal the sunshine from the surrounding drab buildings.
You can enter the playground only from East Broadway -- all the Essex Street entrances are closed, which is probably a relief to those keeping an eye on the little ones. It also helps that green wooden benches line every walkway, every perimeter -- some areas even have backless benches that let you face either way. The locked entrances on Essex border a freshly re-stoned promenade. Stranded between a view of the playground through the vertical poles of the high black iron fence or a view of Essex Street tenements through a little island of trees planted to separate it from the sidewalk, the promenade sparkles as it did one-hundred years ago when social reformer Lilian Wald created this first-ever municipal playground. Perhaps you'll see a young hipster wearing movie starlet sunglasses playing catch with her dog wearing a leather-studded collar; or you'll see an elderly man with a cane reading a Chinese language paper and smoking a cigarette; or a couple speaking in Spanish watching their baby in a plastic encased stroller; or Aaron Wilner (aka Shalom Aleichem to local shopkeepers), a homeless man who roams the area with two large suitcases filled with CDs asking for tzidakah (charity in Hebrew). Sometimes the smell of fresh baked bialys and bagels from Kossar's on Grand Street will make you hungry.
The playground -- a pocket of land in the lower and eastern edge of the Lower East Side -- is safe for kids once again. The Parks Department's major renovation ($2.4 million price tag) pushed out the drug addicts, disinfected the piss stench, and kiddie-proofed the area for the Asian, Latino, black, and Orthodox Jewish kids who live in the unrenovated tenements, projects or cooperative houses that converge at this junction of East Broadway and Essex Street. Seward Park belongs to these nanny-less kids who are watched by their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, older siblings, other friends. There have been no nanny-sightings yet.
The playground almost feels secluded from the surrounding dense urban fabric. But it's not completely serene. Maybe it's because there's no grass (though there are trees). Maybe it's because you can still hear the trucks rattling to or from the Chinese food distribution centers on East Broadway. (Though for two-way city streets, pedestrians can cross East Broadway or Essex rather easily against the light.) Maybe it's because of noisy construction. Accompanying the shouts, shrieks, wails, and giggles, the foot dragging jogs, the screeching sliding and balls bouncing, you can still hear the drone of construction work -- of which there's plenty. On East Broadway, the renovation of the ornate, soaring "Forward Building" (former home of the Yiddish paper) continues endlessly. On Essex, a brand new building is being erected between one that has just been gutted and a tenement getting the final paint touches on its cornice.
A few years ago, the East Broadway subway stop, which exits near the playground, was a stop to avoid at night. This part of Essex was a nowhere space dividing the swelling, narrow, low-lying tenement-packed streets to its west and the sprawling co-ops -- towering brick boxes to its east. Many of the shops on Essex -- mostly Jewish-run stores selling religious artifacts or electronics -- were closing, and across the street, the Seward Park Playground was a dangerous void.
Now when you come out of the East Broadway station, you'll find a Chinese restaurant, a Polish cafe and a trendy bar (which you can spot more quickly after the food distribution centers close down, and the men rushing across the sidewalks with their hand-trucks disperse). Today on Essex, roll-down gates still dominate the block on Saturdays, but you can find a few shops that are open -- the Chinese shops -- the corner groceries, video store, dumpling house, and sign company -- and the Latino shops -- hair salon, pizzeria, and car service depot. You'll still see a lot of graffiti on the on the roll-downs and doors on the tenements along this stretch of Essex, but mostly tags -- throw-ups hastily spray-painted. You won't see many pieces -- names boldly filled-in. The bubble letters "Jouk" on the gate of Israel Home Imports are painted chalky yellow and outlined in maroon -- but the grayness of the gate underneath the paintjob shows through. Increased police and pedestrian presence may have forced the hasty spray painting.
There's a brand new building being erected between one that has just been gutted and a tenement getting the final paint touches on its cornice. Even Guss' Pickles was recently pushed out of its Essex Street space when the landlord hiked up the rent and decided to renovate, following other buildings on the block. And real estate agents can now boast a lovely playground and promenade. Recently, some well-heeled white parents threw a birthday party for their kid and his friends in the park, and they served cranberry juice -- not soda.