Playgrounds show how far DC has come in 20 years

Mayor Vincent Gray recently announced that DC will renovate 8 more playgrounds next year, bringing his "Play DC" project to a total of 40 playgrounds. That's a far cry from the 1990s, when residents who wanted a new playground were basically left to fend for themselves.

Chevy Chase Playground today. Photo by the author.

The District is allocating $1 million for each of those playground makeovers. And every two years, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) will evaluate all play spaces according to a scorecard, looking at factors like the age and condition of equipment and the needs of the surrounding community.

I'm truly happy for today's young children and their caregivers, who are benefiting from the District's largesse. But I can't help feeling just a little jealous. Twenty years ago, when my own neighborhood playground was a deserted, rotting disaster, the District wasn't quite as vigilant, or as generous.

I hadn't intended to become a community playground activist. In fact, I had pretty much stopped noticing the barren, heath-like space near my Chevy Chase DC house that contained a few dangerous, broken-down items of play equipment, including a mysterious wooden structure that suggested a gallows.

But a neighbor of mine who lived just across the Maryland line asked me one day if there wasn't something I could do about that playground. Surely I, as a DC resident, could get the situation taken care of.

Well, of course, I told her. That's when it hit me that I had been driving my kids to other neighborhoods to play when there was a playground, or something that could be turned into a playground, a mere 10-minute walk from my house. This was ridiculous.

Little help from DC

Naively, I thought I would simply call the relevant District officials and they would send someone out to replace the equipment. Ha. I was told that the District couldn't possibly fund such a project, but if I could raise the lion's share of the money, and do all the planning, they would kick in some matching funds.

I'm not sure exactly what happened next, because I hate fundraising, and I'm not wild about meetings. But somehow I found myself at the helm of a grassroots playground committee made up of other parents of young kids. We met in each other's living rooms, knocked on doors, and asked everyone we could think of for money.

We also pored over catalogs of playground equipment, trying to figure out what would both appeal to kids and be safe (two things that don't always go together). None of us had any background in playground design, but we did our best.

We met and knocked on doors for years. One couple started out bringing their infant, and as we kept meeting we watched him learn to roll over, sit up, and eventually walk. But ultimately we managed to raise enough money: $25,000. The District contributed $15,000. (Or at least, those are the figures I and one other former committee member recall.)

Looking back, it's amazing to me that we tolerated this situation. But this was in the Marion Barry/Sharon Pratt Dixon era, when DC residents more or less took it for granted that they couldn't rely on the District to provide certain basic services.

You needed to get a pothole fixed? Good luck. If it snowed, you didn't expect to see a plow coming down your street. After the blizzard of '96, our street was cleared only because one of my neighbors had tickets to a basketball game he was determined not to miss. He took up a collection and used the money to commandeer a snowplow that was clearing a nearby church parking lot.

The Wild West

It was our version of the Wild West: you want something done, you form a posse. And there are certain satisfactions to be gained from such self-help campaigns. I met many neighbors as a result of the playground effort and made some lasting friendships. By the time the playground was finished my own kids were too old to take much interest in it, but I got a warm feeling every time I passed by and saw it brimming with boisterous toddlers.

Now, two renovations later, the Chevy Chase Playground is almost unrecognizable: larger, more elaborate, with the kind of soft, springy surface that we wanted back then but couldn't afford. The DC Tots blog has named it one of the nicest playgrounds in the city. I like to think I had a small part in setting it on the path to that status.

But frankly, I'm willing to trade all those warm feelings for a local government that actually provides the kinds of services taxpayers have a right to expect. And in a process that began with the election of Anthony Williams as mayor in 1998, DC is finally getting there.

I'm not saying that community groups have no role to play in something like playground maintenance. One of the goals of the Play DC program is to "encourage volunteerism and partnerships at playgrounds," and that's great. The group I helped found, Friends of Chevy Chase Playground is, as far as I know, still in existence. But these volunteer groups no longer have to shoulder the primary burden of raising funds and planning, as we did.

True, the District government still falls short of perfection, and more often than not what we hear are complaints: we still have scandals, the schools still have a long way to go. But I can remember when our mayor was caught smoking crack, and when the kids in my neighborhood had to wear hats and coats inside our local elementary school because the boiler was broken for weeks on end.

No doubt it's human nature to focus on the negative, especially when many current DC residents weren't around to experience what things were like here 20 years ago. But sometimes I have an urge to accost the kids on those renovated playgrounds, and their parents, and tell them just how lucky they are.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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Activism, resident engagement is still crucial. Politicians primarily listen to developers and those they owe campaign favors to more than residents; Democracy requires activism, otherwise our country is for sale to the highest bidder (currently, industrial military and prison complexes).

The new pool at DunbarDC is still not open to the general public despite numerous community meetings and hearings, partly because, for months now, DGS/DCPS/DPR failed to disclose numerous problems that still prevent even the students from using the state of the art aquatics facility:

DPR/DGS are averse to installing security surveillance cameras at parks in crime ridden areas (though they do at rec centers and schools); this is a recipe for permitting drug gang activity, vandalism, and ultimately discouraging local residents from using public facilities — in other words: WASTE:

by @ShawingtonTimes on Dec 10, 2013 11:41 am • linkreport

Getting kids outdoors and playing in an unscripted way is so critical for their development. The International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership's article,"Outdoor Play and Learning"(November 4, 2011) makes a strong case for making time and space for kids to be out of doors.

by Julie K. on Dec 11, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

"The District is allocating $1 million for each of those playground makeovers."

Does this mean $1M per playground? Are they making the equipment out of solid gold? How could it possibly cost that much to install a few slides, see-saws, and some rubberized material on the ground?

by adam on Dec 11, 2013 11:20 am • linkreport

Thank you, Natalie, for sharing your story. East of the park, we're still on a lower level of the ladder than you are west of the park, regarding getting city agencies to do what they're supposed to do, but I can see us moving on the same trajectory.

I look forward to the day when the entire city has caught up!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Dec 11, 2013 11:32 am • linkreport

@Geoffrey Hatchard--East of the park, two fabulous, new playgrounds I've been to are the ones at Takoma Rec Center and the Rosedale Rec Center. And the playground at the North Michigan Park Rec Center, while a bit older and not as flashy, has been a favorite of Brookland area families for a while, before the new Noyes Park playground and the playground at Burroughs school. And the Turkey Thicket playground is currently under reconstruction and lots of kids are excited about it.

by thm on Dec 11, 2013 1:50 pm • linkreport

We need playgrounds along the edge of downtown. When I had a child at Thomson elementary there where hundreds of children in the appartment buildings along the edge of downtown with no safe place to play, not even a school with a play ground. What I see is that too many of these playgrounds are still being built where there is political will and less where there is social need.

by DC Parent on Dec 11, 2013 2:29 pm • linkreport

@DC Parent,

There are plans being discussed to put a children's play area in the green space on Mt Vernon Sq in front of the DC Convention Center. It will take more parent advocacy to @EventsDCPrez to make it happen and so they put in proper pedestrian and child safety features around the MtVernonSq.

The intersection of NYAve and MassAve, especially after the Marriott Convention Center Hotel is completed and City Center is fully occupied is going to create a lot of tension. More demand for playground spaces, but the normal commuter and tourist vehicular traffic is going to make already dangerous intersections even more so.

At least for frisbee and ball sports for children, I'm not sure why more downtown parents just don't use the Mall. Perhaps it's just too open? It's not like downtown DC has the old or vacant warehouse space that NYC took down on the lower west side and elsewhere to create more green space.

by @ShawingtonTimes on Dec 12, 2013 8:37 am • linkreport


I agree the mall is a good option for those relatively close to the mall on either side, especially along the southwest side. However, on the Northwest side that is quite a distance of traffic. Ideally they would build up resources between K Street and Rhode Island and 14th and 7th.

by DC Parent on Dec 12, 2013 4:19 pm • linkreport

When I grew up in DC in the 50's and 60's, the playgrounds were staffed after school and in the summer with recreation directors and part-time college students. There were all kinds of activities (basketball, baseball, softball,ping pong and horseshoe tournaments,touch football,
swimming at Georgetown pool, etc.) and competitions and leagues where you played against the other playgrounds. We would pile in the staffer's car and off we would go (no permission slips back then). You got to know kids (and even the directors) from the other playgrounds. You identified kids by what playground they were from. We were outside ALL DAY and spent most of our time in unsupervised play using playground balls and equipment, but there was always an adult there to maintain order and help us out. There were no fees, just show up and play. We also spent untold hours hanging out. None of us went to camp, boys and girls went to the playground everyday in the summer because it was a lot fun. My brothers and I played at Stoddert and have several lifetime friends from the experience. Those were the days....

by Jim on Dec 14, 2013 6:42 am • linkreport

And in those decades, the child population was much more concentrated and there were just more kids in any given area. In the 50's and 60's children under 18 were 30-35% of the population, now they make up 24% of the population.

by MLD on Dec 16, 2013 8:43 am • linkreport

@Adam $1 million is not an unreasonable amount for a new playground in the District. A good percentage goes to site work (dealing with utilities and other things that aren't obvious in the final playground) and union wages, etc. Playground equipment ends up being a small part of the final budget.

Visit for playground news and inspiration.

by Sarah on Dec 21, 2013 9:22 am • linkreport

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