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The curious case of Brooklyn's ‘island of misfit toys’

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What happened to Underhill Playground’s shared toys?

Some toys have migrated back to the Underhill Playground in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

Honestly, I just wanted to write a quirky Brooklyn story. A slice-of-life, neighborhood-magic story about a beloved playground. But in doing so, it’s possible that I ruined it for everyone.

Let me back up.

The playground in question is Underhill Playground, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, aka, the “toy” playground, or what some parents jokingly referred to as the “Island of Misfit toys.”

For as long as most people can remember—at least, most parents of kids of playground-using age—it has been home to dozens of large plastic toys. The pavement there was littered with colorful trikes, noisy walkers, enormous play kitchens, ride-on trains or trucks, and bulky bulldozers. Stuff that neighborhood parents dragged out of cramped living rooms or muddy backyards and donated to the common good at the park.

Parents loved that the toys stayed out of their apartments, that there was plenty to go around, and that it helped teach sharing to irascible toddlers. Their toddlers took their first tentative steps on the hard pavement while holding onto the walkers, and later became skilled riders on wobbly-wheeled tricycles.

And in an era of helicopter parenting—when so much of our kids’ activities are curated, arranged, and spoon-fed to them—Underhill and the faded, often slightly derelict toys had a wild, magical feeling. In this circumscribed space, kids would wander off to find fun, which parents could have nothing to do with and didn’t have to coordinate.

A side benefit: parents could actually have a moment to sit down and chat with one another in complete sentences, which helped foster a strong sense of community, even if you only came once a weekend. Real friendships—both adult and child—were forged while negotiating tricycle time and comparing pre-school experiences.

Yes, one can argue that all decent playgrounds become a “third place” for young families—but Underhill habitués would argue that the joyful cacophony of clutter here made for particularly free-spirited kind of vibe, which made it that more special, and certainly unlike all the other playgrounds in the area.

While the toys were definitely faded, for a long time Underhill matched the feel of Brooklyn before it became curated and twee. And even as the neighborhood’s rents and home prices have soared and previously neglected brownstones have undergone multi-million dollar gut renovations, residents have continued to dig the less polished vibe—the common language of keeping the kids active and happy united us all.

With all this in mind, I began to report this story for Curbed—to describe and celebrate this particular playground. Like many other parents I’d spoken with, I wondered when the toy stuff had begun. How did the parks department feel about it, or manage it? Was anyone anti-toy? I really wanted to figure out how it all worked.

I gave a call to the Parks Department, which in Brooklyn has been helmed for the last year by Commissioner Marty Maher. Before we even talked on the phone, a spokesperson made it clear: Leaving the toys, while “well intentioned” goes against the rules and regulations. 1-04, c4: “No person shall, within or adjacent to any park, store or leave unattended personal belongings.” The toys and those who leave them: scofflaws!

When I did actually talk to Maher, he basically said as much—albeit in a much friendlier and more oblique way. “Look, we’re the fun agency,” said Maher, by phone. (He actually proclaimed the agency the “fun agency” no fewer than five times during our call.)

“We have over 200 playgrounds to clean and inspect every day, and we put safety first,” he explains. “I get it, people want to be helpful, and want to do something nice. No one wants to be a Grinch here but we have to ensure that the playground is safe and we have standards to comply with. And let’s be honest, a good percentage of that stuff was just crap. God forbid something happens; we didn’t do our duty to make it safe there.”

Over the years, Maher says they went with a subtle approach. “We’ve tried to sort of nicely stop the dumping mostly by having our workers talk to people and suggest other ways to dispose of the stuff,” he explained.

I had contacted the Parks Department on a Monday; Maher and I spoke on Friday. But sometime between those two days, a truck rolled up in the middle of the night and removed all the crap. All of it.

Since my kids (who are eight and four) and I only go there occasionally these days, I got wind of it from a post within a Prospect Heights Parents listserv that weekend. One by one, neighborhood moms and dads wandered over to Underhill only to find it devoid of all the fun. Parents took to the mailing list to express shock and sadness, and to ask Why now?

It had been going on for a decade, after all. Could it be the recent campaign ad for Mayor Bill de Blasio, which included some footage of parents and kids amongst the toys at Underhill, they wondered? Frankly, that didn’t seem likely, since the ad had started airing well before my inquiry, and the playground wasn’t named (or chyroned) in the ad. News reports took note of the neighborhood upheaval—talking to parents who were sad, confused, and downright outraged.

Immediately, parents starting demanding answers by calling City Council member Laurie Cumbo—Underhill falls within her district—or calling the Parks department. Others suggested organizing a playground committee to take action, and take responsibility over the toys, should they be ever returned. Many parents just wrote to say how tethered to that playground they felt.

“It's not an exaggeration to say that my daughter essentially learned to walk using the push toys at Underhill,” says Ella Ryan, a mother of two who lives near the park, who I contacted after reading her comment on the listserv. “We have downstairs neighbors and poor insulation between the floors so having a walker in our apartment would just be too disruptive to them. More recently she started trying to use the scooters and other toys you have to propel with your feet. We could see the progression of her abilities as she grew into using different toys and the great thing is we didn't have to go out and buy any of them!”

Elana Gartner Golden, another commenter, has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years, and had a similar experience. “My daughter learned to ride the tricycle there on an, admittedly, down-trodden tricycle. When we finally got her a tricycle of her own, she was a whiz at pedaling as a result,” she explains. “The toys at Underhill made it a unique playground and a community. In fact, our kids took great pride in giving their own toys back to the community so other kids would have a walker or a tricycle. It made them feel like big kids.”

The changes hit some people hard. Underhill sits in a unique location, and serves a wide swath of people in Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, and Park Slope. And certainly between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., the playground is a lifesaver for parents and caretakers who have little kids—i.e. those who are too young for school and for whom the toys are sometimes more accessible than the monkey bars or climbing structures. After school, it’s flooded with elementary school-age children looking to burn off some extra steam with their friends until dinner.

While the removal of the toys happened to have coincided with the first real cold weather and the shorter daylight hours, it does seem distinctly subdued there lately, if not more sparsely attended. The trikes in particular—the functional ones—are among the most missed items, since they tended to hold kids’ attention for the longest periods of time.

Without the toys, the kids seemed at first confused—and then, by a few accounts, vocally upset. Instead of racing into the park to grab a toy, some of the kids look to be sticking closer to their caregiver—relying on their prompts or guidance for what to do. Exactly what parents hadn’t wanted.

Just about a week after the toys vanished, several reps from the Parks department and one from Cumbo’s agreed to meet with parents. After a few minutes of non-answers and deflections to that central question, finally, a woman named Monica Abend from Cumbo’s office admitted: While there had been a few safety complaints called in by members of the community, the truth was that the complete and rapid removal of the toys, without any discussion, was … a miscommunication on the part of the Parks department, on the part of Maher. Not that the toys wouldn’t have been removed anyways, but perhaps not without a bit more warning or cooperation from the community.

So maybe it wasn’t me after all!? Maybe there really were some unhappy parents calling the Parks department around the exact same time I planned this story?

What ensued next was a lengthy discussion about the toys overall—it was the thing many kids loved about the park, said a few; they were sort of derelict, admitted one parent, and we, as Underhill users, were not doing a great job of trashing the ones that were beyond repair. One woman noted that it certainly wouldn’t be a good idea for this wealthy pocket of Brooklyn to ask for money in the budget for a worker to inspect them regularly. (There had been someone doing this in the past, but he was a seasonal worker, apparently, and no longer doing so.)

A Parks rep then brought up the idea of a “playground equipment box”—a large container that would live at the playground, where the toys could live at night and in bad weather. While just relocating the toys to the confines of a box doesn’t entirely solve the inspection problem, Parks seems to feel that the limited space and contained aspect will make it easier to do this task. If that was the best they could do, short of having no toys at all, most parents seemed willing to take what was on offer.

Parks placed the order for the box, and in fact, it arrived about a week later. Interested parents signed up to jump-start a Friends of Underhill action group, which would hopefully work with Parks in the future as well as make sure that the toy situation remained under control.

As the group thinned out and disbanded—mostly to chase their kids up and down the slides and ladders—at least one person asked the question on everyone’s minds: “So, once the box arrives, if we start bringing toys back and we put them in the box, they won’t get taken away?” The answer seemed to be no.

Funnily enough, just as I left, a woman got out of her car and unloaded a trash bag containing two plastic walkers, leaving them just beyond the park iron gate.