A History of NYC’s “Play Streets”

Boys on an NYC play street, 1915. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Boys on an NYC play street, 1915. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Tennis great Althea Gibson grew up on West 143rd Street in Harlem on a stretch of block that had been designated as a “play street” by the city’s Police Athletic League. Every afternoon (except on Sundays), New York City’s play streets were closed to traffic so children without easy access to parks or playgrounds could have a safe space to run, play games and practice sports. It was on this street that Althea Gibson took up paddle tennis – her first exposure to the game that she would master later in life.

In the early part of the 20th Century, huge emphasis was put on the need for children to have space to run and play. In 1916, Joseph Lee, President of the New York City Playground Association said, “Play is not merely a good thing for the child; it is an essential process of his growth…it is for the sake of play that infancy exists.” In 1914, there were over 30 parks in Manhattan, yet few served low-income neighborhoods.

In an effort to bring children in poorer neighborhoods access to outdoor space, Police Commissioner Arthur Woods spearheaded the “play street” experiment. In July of 1914, a stretch of Eldridge Street between Rivington and Delancey was closed to traffic and vendors. The Parks Department brought in two of their street pianos, and the Eldridge Street Settlement organized a folk dance festival – turning a block that normally bustled with commerce into a place for music, sport and recreation. This concept was immediately popular with the neighborhood, and in the same year 29 more brand new play streets were introduced around Manhattan. In 1924, the program was expanded to the outer boroughs, with 50 play streets in Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

Today, along with the expansion of the NYC Parks Department, there are designated playstreets across all 5 boroughs that give city kids the space they need to run and play – and perhaps discover a sport that will one day lead them to greatness.

Don’t miss American Masters: Althea Gibson, Friday September 4 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Sources: New York City Police Athletic League, NYC Parks, New York Times Archive