City officials admit they "overlooked" a playground in the Bronx where NBC 4 New York found an abandoned, vandalized minivan parked on a renovated basketball court that a local school had turned into a staff parking lot.
The court is part of Rev. J. Polite Playground, which is adjacent to Metropolitan High School (P.S. 99) and is jointly operated by the Parks Department and the Department of Education. Beyond the junked vehicle, NBC 4 New York found the school staff had been using the court as a parking lot for years -– even after it was renovated in 2012 and dramatically improved for the use of students and people in the neighborhood.
It wasn't clear if the van belonged to a school staffer or had just been dumped.
"About four months after the park was renovated the school took down two of the rims to turn it into a parking lot,” said Niles Flowers, who lives across the street from the park and has long been hoping to play basketball there. “The abandoned van has been there for about eight months.”
New York City Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., who represents areas of the Bronx including the playground, was shocked at what he found when NBC 4 New York asked him to visit the playground.
“We’ve worked very hard to change the image of the south Bronx and this is the old days of the south Bronx. This is not what the south Bronx is about now days," Salamanca Jr., a Democrat, said. "There’s a lot of work that needs to be done here. They can have two basketball courts, but they’re missing rims. That’s something that my office will be addressing ASAP."
Shortly after NBC 4 New York and Salamanca Jr. visited the playground, the junked minivan was towed away. Officials at the school declined to answer NBC 4 New York's questions about using the court as a parking lot.
While the court is now empty, people in the neighborhood still don’t have clear access to the playground. The gates are locked when school is not in session.
“According to the rules with the Parks Department, these [jointly operated playgrounds] are supposed to be open after school. They’re supposed to be open on weekends. And they’re supposed to be open during holidays,” said Geoff Croft, president of the non-profit group NYC Park Advocates.
Even after the cleanup, that’s not the case with Rev. J. Polite Playground. The gates remain locked, city officials said, because the court is adjacent to a soccer field that can only be used by “organized groups and responsible users” who have a permit. Officials told NBC 4 New York the unusual policy was adopted because people in the neighborhood had damaged the field during barbecue gatherings. The city could offer no specifics on the barbecue trouble, or any other park in the city that required permit access for that reason.
While declining to answer many specific questions, city officials did give NBC 4 New York two statements on the situation.
"Children benefit from vigorous exercise and should have the opportunity to play outside whenever possible. We are committed to providing safe outdoor space for children to engage in physical activity," said the Department of Education.
"We are happy to share Rev. J Polite Playground with Metropolitan High School where students are allowed exclusive access during school hours," said the Parks Department, adding that it does not allow outdoor recreational spaces to be used as parking lots.
When asked what kids in the neighborhood who want to use the field or play basketball should do now, the department said they should apply for a permit at nyc.gov/parks or call 718.430.1840.
Shortly after the minivan was gone, NBC 4 New York found local kids climbing the park fence to play basketball.