For years now, some Brownsville locals kept their kids away from Betsy Head Playground. One father, James, walked by the playground with his nine-year-old son one day over the summer. It was a nice, warm, bright day, and as father and son walked down Dumont Avenue, two boys inside the playground started calling the son’s name.
“Can I go play with them?” the son asked James.
“Nah, not today,” said James. “We gotta get home.”
The irony of the situation crossed James’s mind. Here he was telling his son that he’d rather him sit at home on a nice summer day than run around in a playground with friends. It wasn’t supposed to work that way, James thought.
To James’s eyes, though, Betsy Head Playground was the place younger boys met older boys who pulled them into the streets. He had seen his son’s friends there on many days and he always worried for them. He had seen the older teenagers gathered on the jungle gym or huddled beside one of the picnic tables. He knew they weren’t all bad influences, but he knew some of them were.
His son tried to persuade him to let him go, but James held firm. His son stared at the sidewalk in disappointment much of the rest of the way home.
“It’s a tragedy in this neighborhood that one of the only playgrounds around here is a place where kids can’t play,” says James.
It’s part of the reason he’s been hoping to move out once he and his family can afford it. He works as a deliveryman for a restaurant in north Brooklyn and he’s been saving up. But it’ll probably be awhile.
So he was thrilled when he heard the news this week about Betsy Head Playground. The city has devoted $9 million to renovating it. The drab, minimalist, run-down space will become an “Imagination Playground,” a dense and colorful play area with both traditional jungle gym equipment and features like sand, water, and building blocks. Workers will break ground on Tuesday.
The renovation is one of 40 projects in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 100 Days to Progress initiative, which aims at improving quality of life in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.
To many locals, it’s all part of the gradual improvements they’ve seen around their blocks over the years. There’s still much to be done. Across the street from Betsy Head Playground, Betsy Head Park remains dilapidated, rock-hard and dusty, littered with weeds and pocked by divots. A patch of grass-less dirt the size of a basketball court lies in the middle of the field.
But progress is relative. Brownsville native Clyde jogs around the park on many nights, and as he put it one night this fall, “Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to stand out here in the park right now, in the evening. The lights would be busted and it would be dark and dangerous. It’s so much safer. I’m ready for the change.”