Promises, Promises…

That big wooden structure that gave us all splinters in the old NYU playground

Before downtown playgrounds became overcrowded, superstar architect-designed, paparazzi magnets, we had the NYU playground (I don’t know if it had an official name).  It was located on the plot of land where the NYU Coles Sports and Recreation Center now sits, just east of the Silver Towers.  There was a dirt baseball field, (supposedly) a basketball court that I do not remember, and a large paved area with a slide, jungle gym, maybe a few other climbing apparatuses, and a huge wooden structure made of enormous pieces of semi-rotten wood that smelled funny when it rained and gave you splinters every time you touched it.  Later, a dog run was added on the southeast end of the lot, and a good one-third to half of it toward the Bleecker Street side was a softball field overgrown with weeds.

The playground was so vast that children could basically play off on their own unnoticed for quite a while.  I remember once hanging upside down from a bar and then falling straight down on the top of my head (see my sister standing on said bar in the photo below).  I lay on the ground, dazed and confused, for what seemed to be quite a while, and when no one came over to see how I was, I eventually just got up and staggered back to my friends.  My mother told me that before the dog run was put in, she used to bring children from the SoHo Playgroup to the patch of dirt on the corner of Mercer and Houston to dig for worms.  During the summer we would all cool off under the sprinkler, which was basically just a shower head coming out of the fence.  There were no trees in the park, so summers were brutal, but who cares when you’re five years old!

The big slide in the old NYU playground (Mercer Street in background)

In the late-70’s, NYU announced plans to build a sports complex on the playground site, causing an uproar in the community.  Sean from the SoHo Alliance posted a comment a few days back about the issues surrounding the building of the Jerome S. Coles Sports and Recreation Center, which opened in 1981:

As part of the deal to build Coles (NYU needed special zoning permits), NYU promised the community use of a playground on top of Coles (as well as use of the gym itself).  NYU built the playground on the roof, and you can see the equipment on the Houston Street side, but provided no stairs to enable the public to access it, except by entering Coles – which is generally off-limits to the public. Catch-22 anyone?  NYU also had built a smaller sandlot playground inside the I.M. Pei towers, at Greene and Houston. It was primarily for use by its tenants in the towers, but NYU closed it about ten years ago.. . .Finally, although NYU promised adults in the community use of Coles, admission hours are so restricted as to be useless as a regular gym, being accessible only a few hours on the weekend.

But after all was said and done, The Coles Center was built, we lost our playground, and NYU never followed through on their promises.

Nowadays, due to the astronomical rise in the number of children being raised in SoHo, our area playgrounds are often overcrowded.  They are also safer—my daughter will not be falling on her head unnoticed or getting any splinters!  And my family is lucky enough to have a community key to the gated NYU Key Park in Washington Square Village, for exclusive use of NYU and a limited number of community (non-NYU) families.  I must admit that I feel entitled to the key, as a small compensation for NYU’s unfulfilled past promises.  The Key Park is a wonderland of colorful chutes and ladders, swings, a sandbox, and oodles of toys.  Yet I still miss the Wild West ruggedness of the old playground, splinters, weeds, worms, and all.

P.S. NYU recently announced new development plans for the area just north of Houston Street.  According to Sean:

Now, NYU wants to demolish Coles, take over that long strip of land on Mercer that contains the dog run and closed-off sitting/sitting area and small playground from Dept of Transportation, and build on this larger land area its “Zipper” Building, which will be as high as 26- stories.

NYU wants to relocate the dog run inside the I.M. Pei complex and add a playground there. Cynically, I guess to win over the parents, NYU has opened the sandlot playground on Houston/Greene this week after closing it for a decade. I guess they are trying to win over parents to support their proposal to build the God-awful Zipper Building on Mercer.. . . Remember all this when NYU gives promises and asks for permits to build the Zipper Building next year. The SoHo Alliance is working with community groups in Greenwich Village who oppose NYU’s scheme.

To keep up with the latest news regarding NYU’s future building plans, sign up for the SoHo Alliance’s newsletter.

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13 Responses to “Promises, Promises…”

  1. Aristides Pappidas Says:

    Department of Identification report. Kids in picture one are Deija (sp?) and Dov Clayton. Perhaps that’s MacLeod Pappidas in the background. Picture two: I know that’s you at the top and Mimi just below. Picture three: Deija for sure. I can’t i.d. the nearest adult and can only guess at the background group. Perhaps you could add names to the pictures in the future?

    • Yukie Says:

      Yes. Dejha and Dov, maybe Cloudy and Mimi in background. Picture three:Dejha and another child with Anne. Cynthia in background with Chi-chan, Vanessa, and two other children. I did not identify the people because the post was mostly about the playground, but I’m happy to know that you still recognize the old crew after all this time!

  2. Andrew Says:

    Wow, those are fabulous photos! And your memories are a great reminder of why open space is so important. Of course, they’re also a reminder of NYU’s legacy of broken promises. Thanks for sharing these!


  3. SoHo Man Says:

    The NYU playground was fine….but for most NYC kids at that time, some of the coolest “playgrounds” were the unoffical ones.
    Like the twisted metal sculptures in the triangle on Broome between thompson and W. Bdway!
    Or playin’ in the sand lots in front of The Grand Union before they moved the 3rd St. Garden there.

  4. Georgia Says:

    I walk by the shuttered playground on Mercer near Houston all the time and wish my son could play there — so interesting and challenging. He does enjoy the less risky NYU key park-playground though.

  5. Michael Says:

    Some of my fondest childhood memories were in that playground where Coles Sports Center ultimately landed, there and against the walls of the Silver Towers & 505 where we played handball every day.

    I remember playing baseball on the little, dirt field bordering Houston: a foul towards the first base line would go onto the street, a homerun (not that I ever hit one) would make it into the dog run on Mercer St.
    And when the church bells rang six, I knew it was time to get my butt home for dinner.

    Here’s a pic of me and My pal Jai looking towards the field before we were old enough to play on it –

    And with David enjoying lunch, looking in the opposite direction, towards Wash Sq Village –

  6. Yukie Says:

    I used to watch you guys playing baseball for hours! Love the photos.

  7. cathryn Says:

    Yukie, wasn’t there any way to hold NYU accountable to their promises? It’s so hard to imagine they got away with that(not entirely surprising – but that was a firm promise whereas much of what they promise seems a bit more vague). Did City Council or anyone else get involved?

    I wonder if you know some of the history about the Whole Foods, neighborhood health food store, that was on Prince Street. (Small store – before the chain existed.) I don’t know when it got to the area but I used to like to go there (I guess it was late ’80’s and ’90s) and still miss it. Maybe you’ll do a blog post tho’ not sure if it’s something with a story behind it or that you liked. 🙂



  8. Yukie Says:

    Hello Cathryn-

    Great minds think alike! I am writing a post that includes a section on Whole Foods for next week or the week after. Please stay tuned!

    As for NYU’s accountability, I defer to Sean and the SoHo Alliance or another SoHo person who was an adult during the time Coles was built. I only remember snippets of what the “grownups” were saying about it, and tried to do research on the community reaction to Coles, but came up with virtually nothing. I would like to think there was/is a way to hold them accountable for what they promise. I will let you know if I find out more.

  9. Getty Images « The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    […] and sweep at the garage.  Jay would go across the street to the former NYU playground (see my post on the playground here) to play pickup basketball games and then in the evening the whole family would go to Chinatown for […]

  10. #26: NYU Jerome S. Coles Sports Center Natatorium « 40 Pools Says:

    […] as part of the NYU 2031 plan. Just as the previous round of NYU construction on this site was controversial, so are the plans for the future. I’ll refrain from editorializing except to say I hope there […]

  11. Bullied into a Sense of Humor (Part I) | QuinnCreative Says:

    […] Mercer Street (NYC) playground, with the same slide I remember. This one was from: […]

  12. Peter King Says:

    I played in that playground in 1968 when I was 4, with my nursery school group. My dad was at NYU and we lived in an apartment up on the 8th floor. I remember gazing down and watching the Picasso sculpture take shape.

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