Playing in the Street

When three-year-old Alex threw his ball into the street last week, his day care teacher encouraged him to chase after it. She wasn’t playing with fate, she was simply engaging him in a sports activity on a block closed to traffic. Called “playstreets,” these blocks are city streets reserved for recreation for school age children during weekday hours. Community organizations, block associations, or other groups can apply for the designation, which must be approved by the residents, the local precinct, and the area’s community board.

The stretch of Nelson Avenue, between 168th Street and 169th Street in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, has had playstreet status for a number of years, thanks to the New Friendly Day Care Center, which applies yearly. In March, while painting over graffiti at the Day Care Center, we noticed their playstreets plaque and wondered what the court could do to build on that idea.

Conceptually, playstreets require and celebrate cooperation between neighborhoods and law enforcement agencies to ensure that a block is safe for the young people who live there. One of Bronx Community Solution’s most important goals is to help build positive engagement between Bronx communities and the entities that police low-level crime (the police department, the courts, etc.). What better way to do this than through organizing a week of fun and educational activities for young people? We would be sending the message that courts can work like community-based organizations to strengthen relationships with community stakeholders and to build confidence in the judicial system.

In the months leading up to this week-long event, Bronx Community Solutions worked with organizations on the block, such as the Day Care Center, Highbridge Community Life Center, and Sacred Heart School, to plan a week of fun activities (in partnership, of course, with the 44th Precinct and Community Board 4). Relying on eight years of experience running this program at our sister project in Crown Heights, we collected materials (mostly through donations from organizations like World Vision and Materials for the Arts) for activities such as arts and crafts, sports, board games and books, and face painting. We also connected to our strong network of service organizations and city agencies to provide educational materials and activities.

John Johnson, from the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education, played a recycling game with the young people, rewarding them for correctly recycling egg cartons, paper boxes, and juice bottles. The Fire Department towed their 50-foot fire safety trailer onto the block and kids got to experience what it is like to be in a fire, while also learning how to avoid fires in the first place. This was especially poignant, given the devastating fire that took 10 victims (most of them children) in this same section of the Bronx in March. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office gave away safety information to adults and crime prevention coloring books for kids, and Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center's Mobile Health Unit did on-site screenings for diabetes, cholesterol, and heart disease. Young people got to play games with the Parks and Recreation department’s Playmobile and some of them even got to practice their skating skills in a skating rink set up by the Skatemobile.

The Bronx Borough President’s Office sent resources and information to be handed out and all children on the block received a nutritious and free lunch from SchoolFood, the Department of Education’s summer food program. One of the largest programs of its kind in the country, the SchoolFood program likely gives away as much food during the summer as all of the city's pantries and soup kitchens combined. Finally, Bronx Community Solutions’ community service department sent crews to do clean-up and maintenance projects throughout the area for that week, broadening our services beyond one block of Nelson Avenue. What made the week feel even more successful was that all of these city services were free of charge, making the entire event not only educational and fun, but also cost-efficient. It was an example of how many services the City of New York offers to those who are wise to the opportunities and can plan ahead.

As much fun as it sounds, however, it wasn’t all “play” for everyone on the block. Staffing the different activity tables (such as face painting, board games and arts and crafts) were the youth participants of the Juvenile Accountability Court (JAC). Located right next door in Bronx Family Court, the Juvenile Accountability Court operates as an alternative to placement program for at-risk youth on probation ages 10-15. All probationers in the program are required to complete 60 hours of community service. (Click here to see a video of their experiences.) For this group of young men and women, their community service obligation required them to work as a team all week: they set up the tables and prepared the playstreet in the morning, they staffed the activity tables in the afternoon and they cleaned up at day’s end. When asked if the work was worth the time, one of the probationers responded, “Of course. We helped make the kids happy.” Several others even admitted to having fun and offered to volunteer their time at future playstreet events. Although this may not be the most traditional type of community service, the opportunity for teenage probationers to help other kids is a powerful one and was recognized by all.

“This week has just been wonderful. Those kids had a great time,” said Ms. Bertha, the day care center chef who would likely remain unfazed by a tornado. A kind, loving woman who quickly fired up her grill at our final day barbeque and probably broke a record for the number of hamburgers she cooked in 20 minutes, Ms. Bertha noted that the event had been an educational experience for everyone. Not only was it beneficial for the block residents and for the young people helping to staff the event, but it also gave us at Bronx Community Solutions a chance to connect with the community we serve daily in a very different context. While being chased by screaming, gleeful three-year-olds is not the first thing that comes to mind for problem-solving justice practices, we in the Bronx think that it certainly has a place at Nelson Avenue and 168th Street.