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In Cleveland, Unlike Richer Suburbs, Playgrounds Are Still Not for Playing

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, and four months after Ohio Governor Mike DeWine allowed playgrounds to reopen, the backboards on the basketball court at Herman Park in Cleveland are empty squares, devoid of baskets. The swingsets are empty too, except for some creaking hooks that are supposed to hold the swings. That's how all 108 playgrounds in the city look right now. Swings and hoops were removed early in the pandemic and have yet to return. Red-and-white signs warn that playgrounds are closed.

For artist and activist Walter Patton, the closures and the empty parks are symptoms of a bigger problem.

"You know, in the Black community, everything that we thought was essential was closed," Patton said. "The nail shops, the beauty salons, the schools, the playgrounds."

While playgrounds and basketball courts have reopened in many suburbs, they remain closed in Cleveland. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

A lot of those places remain closed, he said, even as playgrounds have been reopening for months in whiter and more affluent areas. The consequences for people in his neighborhood — especially young people — have been dangerous, he said.

"We had eight [shooting] deaths in our community from March up until now, and three of them was under the age of 15," Patton said. The disparity in the pace of reopening public spaces in white versus Black and low-income versus affluent areas especially struck him on a recent drive through a middle-class, mostly white suburb. He saw kids playing uninhibited in a splash park.

"Then when I came back down to my community, in the projects, everything was closed," he said. "And I'm like, 'Wow. Like, I can see why the violence [in the suburbs] is minimal, but in my neighborhood it's high: There's nothing for [kids] to do.'"

Filling the Unstructured Hours

Patton is trying to help fill the void with a program called Create Art Not Violence, a weekly gathering at the Friendly Inn Settlement House where kids can draw, make music or write.

At a recent session in an orange-painted community room, kids worked on computer video projects or dabbed paint on blank pieces of paper.

For 12-year-old Isaiah Spoon, the sessions have been a rare bright spot and chance for fun in an otherwise flat day. 

"COVID ruined everything, for real," said Spoon. "You can barely go to parks, pools. And then my favorite thing in going to the parks is getting on the swings, for real."

Walter Patton, left, leads afternoon creativity classes at Friendly Inn Settlement House on Cleveland's East Side. [Create Art Not Violence] There’s been a lot of talk of closed schools worsening the academic achievement gap for kids in Black and lo-income neighborhooods. Less a focus — but no less important — has been the impact on that gap created by closed parks, playgrounds and after-school programs, said Megan Gallagher, a researcher at the Urban Institute, a national nonprofit think tank.

"More affluent communities can leverage private resources, and private facilities even, to relaunch programs like sports and arts and other types of enrichment activities," she said.

Basketball courts, such as this one at Herman Park on Cleveland's West Side, still don't have hoops. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

Low-income neighborhoods, meanwhile, may not have enough money to do extra cleanings of playground equipment, for example, or hire monitors or build barriers to make sure kids are keeping a safe physical distance from each other. Meanwhile, because infection rates tend to be comparatively high in Black and low-income neighborhoods, "less affluent communities are more tightly controlled by local governments who are trying to control the spread of the virus," Gallagher said. The caution is understandable but problematic, said Joy Johnson of Burten Bell Carr Development, the nonprofit neighborhood group that represents the area where Walter Patton lives.

She applauds the grassroots projects such as Patton's, but wants the city’s institutions to be more proactive in finding ways for playgrounds and public spaces to reopen fully and safely.

What she'd like to hear from public officials, she said, is "'We're concerned about public health and safety, and so we are going to stop these activities, and instead we will be doing such and such.' I think we're missing that 'instead.'"

Milk Crates & Festivals

One model for how to do that safely, and with limited resources, comes from New York City. There, two nonprofits — the Van Alen Institute and the Urban Design Forum — have teamed up to help low-income neighborhoods reopen their public spaces safely with small grants and free technical support from architects, engineers and lawyers.

"The services they need are holistic; it's not one vector of services," said Deborah Marton of the Van Alen Institute.

An architectural rendering shows a proposed structure to allow socially distant gatherings at a public space in the Bronx. [Van Alen Institute]

Marton said specific solutions have ranged from helping restage an annual food festival for the COVID era, complete with getting permits for closing streets to provide more outdoor dining space, to putting up hand sanitizing stations, "to how you build barriers out of milk crates," Marton said.

Cities from Chicago to Boston have been reaching out to learn how they can create their own version of the program, she said.

In Cleveland, it may take a similar boost from the private sector to help create new spaces for kids to play.

Mayor Frank Jackson said swings and hoops will be replaced eventually, but the city is not in a place to do so yet.

"Hopefully by the spring of next year, the pandemic will be at a level where we can have full activity at our playgrounds," Jackson said.

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