James Trainor

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The Lost World of Radical Playgrounds

The Lost World of Radical Playgrounds

There was a child went forth every day, / And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder, pity, love, or dread, that object he became, / And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1856

Cabinet, Issue 45, Spring 2012, Games

Mid-1970s

I’ll pin the blame on Robert Moses for this one. After all, it was one of his playgrounds, one of the safe, drab, battleship-gray ones whose WPA-era design had changed little since Moses assumed power as New York City’s parks commissioner in 1934 (during his twenty-six-year reign, 650 playgrounds were built). The banal swing-set. The bone-jarring seesaw. The galvanized slide. The joyless sprinkler. Each static feature was set far apart from the others, as if to avoid cross-contamination of respective functions, all of it embedded in a vast expanse of summer-blistered asphalt and concrete. I was five years old and with a sizable gash in my forehead, blood streaming down my face (eight stitches, lots of iodine, Roosevelt Hospital emergency room); it was my first and last major mishap in a New York playground, one that instantly implanted a lifelong phobia of pebble-dashed concrete. Along with asphalt (a “resilient” surface, Moses once proudly explained, that prevents children from “digging and eliminates dust”), it was the most unlikely play surface ever concocted by bureaucratic city planners charged with the safety of Gotham’s young.

The obvious irony in all this was that this standard-issue trauma did not occur in what the kids in my Upper West Side neighborhood fondly nicknamed “the dangerous playground” just up the hill—the one that called out with its siren song of massive timbered ziggurats and stepped pyramids with wide undulating slides, the vertiginous fire-pole plunging though tiered treehouses, the Indiana Jones-style rope bridge, the zip line, the Brutalist-Aztec watercourses, and tunnel networks. There, I received not so much as a scratch. And there wasn’t just one dangerous playground; these so-called adventure playgrounds were sprouting up everywhere, siphoning off, Pied-Piper-like, any kid with a scrap of derring-do suddenly bored to death with the old playgrounds, places that now had all the grim appeal of a municipal parking lot...

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