For the first couple months of this pandemic, I wasn’t thinking much about beating the heat, but as May set in—and with playgrounds closed—I started to wonder what would happen in summer if the playground sprinklers weren’t on. Being trapped in your house is no fun regardless of the weather, but for families who can’t afford air conditioners or the electricity to run them, the prospect of surviving July and August is bleak. (Cooling centers, which older folks in neighborhoods like ours rely on to get through the hottest months, are inconceivable when you contemplate the actual prospect of putting a couple dozen octogenarians in a gym.) Playgrounds, then, with their shade and spray (a communal suburban backyard), are literal oases for city families in need.
The problem with playground sprinklers is that nearly all of them somehow break over the winter, during which pipes split, valves break, drains fill up with debris, and electrical circuits corrode. So every year involves a delicate dance with beleaguered park workers, in which sweaty parents ask, “How soon until the water’s on?” and the workers reply, invariably, “A few days.” But in truth, the answer may depend on the block. In our neighborhood of Williamsburg, McCarren Park and East River State Park (pictured at top right in this morning’s edition)—parks that serve areas with higher median incomes—generally get their pipes fixed and water running just after Memorial Day. Our local playground, across the BQE on Rodney Street, by contrast, has not had water all summer—including yesterday, when the temperature reached 98 degrees.
It’s typical for our playground, with its scenic view of a six-lane highway, to be served last, but it’s especially galling this year, in this place, with so many families in poverty, people out of work, and kids out of school. On a good year, entire families spend the whole day at Rodney in the sprinklers (and playing, for better or worse, in the lake that forms over the clogged drain). But this is not a good year, and people are on edge, so the prospect of not having water to help kids and their parents cool down is dramatically more fraught. What do families do in the meantime? We try to decamp to McCarren Park or the river, where the water features are on all day, but it involves a fifteen minute walk on hot asphalt in direct sunlight (hardly an easy escape). We turn on the hydrants, which puts kids in the middle of the street—fun to watch, but considerably riskier when you weigh it against recreation that doesn’t involve dodging cars. None of this is ideal, let alone safe.
It’s clear that city budgets play a role here, and there’s a lot to be said about that (I wonder where we might find the budget to maintain plumbing in corners of the budget that are… more padded?) but it does boil down—no pun intended—to somebody making a choice. Kids in tenements come last. Fountains stay broken, old equipment decays. The people who arguably need these common facilities most, who most benefit from the open space and cool water, will have to wait.
You will recall we went to “Zentals Park” on Sunday. The playgrounds there are absurdly nice. Clean, all surfaces padded. Adventure playgrounds! Three types of swings! Everything made of hardwood! And the water flowing, lead-free and in full working order. This is what park conservancies get you (the playgrounds in Central Park are governed by the “Playground Partners” subcommittee of The Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy, which is… a lot to unpack in 2020.) Laurea and I sometimes talk about forming the Rodney Playground Conservancy, an organization whose funds will be spent on finally killing that poison ivy in the corner, removing the exposed bolt from under the toddler playset, and putting new Belgian block stones in the holes that trip up running kids. Our Sprinkler subcommittee is seeking a treasurer. If you’re interested, we’ll invite you to our annual gala.
That was a lot, so I’ll just lighten the mood here by pointing out that Kina’s list of favorite foods includes an actual inconceivably-large body of water and somehow no cheeseburgers. I suppose I’d take the ocean, too, if I had to choose.
Finally, a correction, which I will now render in house-style italics: I sent yesterday’s email out with the subject “Kind Enjoys Pasta Picnic in Zentals Park”, which would be more embarrassing if the headline didn’t include the hilarious word “Zentals”. I assume you all know that I meant “Kid enjoys…” because that’s the grammatical construction of 70% of our headlines. We regret the error.