You may have heard of New York City’s Playstreets – examples been written up on a few different occasions. Coming under the auspices of the Police Athletic League, Play Streets are one block in length and need to be located no one-way streets in residential areas, with no meters, bus routes or businesses. They also need considerable community support to undertake the paperwork and staffing necessary for success.
I saw two while I was there last: the one in Jackson Heights and the one that the locals call “Miss Fox’s”, at Lyman Place in the Bronx. I’d read the article in the Times earlier that summer, but it was Playborhood’s Mike Lanza who let me tag along on his visit (thanks again, Mike!).
Hetty Fox has been running the play street on her block – the block she moved to at 3 years of age – for nearly 35 years. We talked with her, and one of the local children named Lanelle, about how their street is run, what it means to them, and what it might mean to the many curious visitors who come for a chat and slice of pizza.
In a part of town where fear of and for children often dominates, Hetty is adamant that children need time and space to play according to their own needs and interests. “We need to keep the ingenuity of the children as huge as it is, before they’re whittled down,” Hetty said, talking about the need for adults who can keep that space safe for children’s play.
(Apologies for the rubbishness of these images – I only had my cameraphone with me and it wasn’t up to the task.)
Lanelle was the one who really articulated what that safety meant. She’s thirteen and, when Mike asked her about her freedom to range, explained that she’s allowed to go to 42nd Street by train, Jackson Avenue by bike, and only to the corner by foot. When he asked why, she explained it was to do with getaway speed, and that her Mom “just wants to keep me safe” and that her mother’s fears were in no way excessive or unreasonable.
“We don’t get in no fights (on the play street),” she said. “We just come out to play in Miss Fox’s street. Some blocks you can’t go out, even 7 am, without getting shot or something. Everyone who can comes down here, everyone who doesn’t want trouble. (Other than here) I mostly don’t go nowhere. This is my summer camp.”
Once there they play in the sprinklers, take out board games from Miss Fox’s living room – mancala has been the favourite two years running. They play skully, one of those street games you fear is all but relocated from the streets to the museums. At twelve the older boys come to play basketball. The biggest difference though is how this block is used, compared to those we passed on our walk from the subway. Adults sit out on deckchairs “even if it’s raining”, and toddlers stumble between knees. To one side, a group of men work on rebuilding a car, and everywhere is music crackling out from a stereo and chat in three different languages.
Without a doubt it is Miss Fox’s energy that keeps this place going. She’s put up educational posters alongside the pinned-up photographs and newspaper clippings from past summers. She stores the play materials in her house. She selects, trains and works alongside the teenage staff team. She’s nostalgic for a time when playing out was the norm, saying that in those days “you’d know everyone by their sounds, and you’d get to know who was out, if you wanted to go out, if you had to go out!”
She links the problems these children face daily with their hunger for play. She says there is never enough paint, never enough money for consumable supplies, but she goes door to door at local businesses to fundraise. “Give them paper!” she says. “Give them paint! They’re just trying to say they’re alive!”