What do New Yorkers do when they feel like playing? We’re not talking about working out, exactly, or straight-up exercising (though obviously those activities can be fun and relaxing), but literally just playing?
The answer, of course, is everything you can possibly imagine, because that’s how this city rolls. Sometimes they just go down the block to their local park; sometimes it takes a long-ass train ride to get to a favorite spot, like Rockaway Beach.
But as any true New Yorker knows, the whole city can be your neighborhood—and your playground—if you’re willing to treat it that way. These New Yorkers show us how it’s done.
Coleman Playground skate park, Lower East Side
Dramatically situated beneath the Manhattan Bridge, the Coleman Skatepark—once strictly a DIY operation, then redesigned and rebuilt with Nike money in 2012—is one of the city’s premier destinations for skaters, and, for good or ill, adds a considerable amount of “cool” to the community.
“It’s my favorite place to skate in NYC because of the diversity of terrain—you have a happy medium of everything you want in one setting—and the vibes,” says Jeremy, who lives in Gowanus but skates on the Lower East Side. “Everyone’s super cool; everyone gets along really well. I’m new to the city and so the social element is important to me and people here make me feel right at home. I like to skate because it’s an outlet, it’s therapeutic. I wasn’t really one to play on a team or anything, and I’m a bartender who works nights, so the afternoon is my time to play, and this spot right here is exactly why I came to the city. This is the spot.”
Seward Park volleyball court, Lower East Side
Seward Park in Chinatown first opened in 1903, and today, it’s divided into a shady playground area and vast expanse of concrete. All summer long young volleyball players come here to practice for the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament (NACIVT), or play in other regional events.
”There’s a big volleyball community that’s centered in Chinatown because there’s so much space here at Seward Park, and it’s perfect for the NY Mini tournament, which follows NACIVT rules,” says Beverly, who was practicing on a recent summer day. “It brings the Asian community together mostly, but a lot of other players also come and play. What got me started here was mainly the sport itself, but it’s definitely the community that makes me stay. It’s become more like playing with a family than just competing in a sport, and it’s shown me how we can grow and have fun together instead of focusing only on winning.”
West 4th Street basketball courts, Greenwich Village
Located on one of the busiest corners in the West Village, the West 4th Street basketball court—also known as the Cage—regularly attracts some of NYC’s best streetball players as well as hordes of passersby who love watching them. Several leagues play here, and big games like FDNY vs. NYPD are huge spectacles, but during off-times pickup games are the rule, and a rite of passage for city players.
Clyde: “You come down here and there’s so much creativity on display, there’s so much talent, so much you learn from others. And over time, you build a name for yourself.”
Raphael: “I’ve been playing here for seven or eight years. You have to build your reputation here. But it’s also about more than playing basketball. This is a community for us. Older guys, younger guys.…”
Clyde: “It’s a whole family. They play handball on that side we play basketball on this side but at the end of the day everyone that’s in this park is one big family together. Whatever happens here, we all support each other with it.”
Pier 46 at Hudson River Park, West Village
Hudson River Park, a 4.5-mile city/state operation running from 59th Street to the Battery, has become such an integral part of Manhattan’s west side that it’s easy to forget how new it all is, with most areas finished in the last decade. Pier 46, jutting out over the water across from Perry Street, is one of the smaller sections, but its spongy turf and relaxed atmosphere make it popular for passive recreation.
“I’m here learning and practicing what I call my ‘upside down balance,’ trying to get comfortable on my head and increasing upper body strength,” says Aylia, who travels from Brooklyn to practice yoga on Pier 46. “It’s so soft! I come here about three times a week. I’m a dancer and the practice is very helpful. And it’s emotionally powerful, too. Anything that’s physical is emotional. It’s about relieving stress but also connecting with myself. You cannot be serious about doing anything physical without connecting with yourself.”
Ranaqua Playground, Mott Haven, the Bronx
After a $3.5 million restoration, the previously worn out Ranaqua Playground reopened this May in the South Bronx, and instantly became a community hub, with new equipment for kids, new trees and greenery, and a spacious synthetic-turf field for games or romping or relaxing. Located at 136th Street near Willis Avenue in Mott Haven, the new Ranaqua was funded by the Community Parks Initiative, which is reconstructing 16 other Bronx parks as well.
”Coco’s seven months old—I named her that because she looks like a coconut—and she loves sticks,” says Jimmy, who lives in Mott Haven and brings his dog to the playground. “She has a stick infatuation. Once you give her a stick, it’s over. And playing with her out here is good for me, too. I get exercise. I get to run with her. I have her jumping over fences and stuff like that. I get fresh air and can blow off steam.”
“Before, [the park] was a broken-down basketball court you couldn’t even play on; you couldn’t dribble right, the floor was so cracked. Now I come here almost every day with Coco. She kind of grew up in this park. She loves it. And all the kids love her too. We hang out here for hours sometimes.”
Hunter’s Point South Park, Long Island City, Queens
The unveiling last month of phase two of the $100 million Hunter’s Point South Park means there’s now 11 acres of waterfront green space along the southern Long Island City shore. It has everything urban parkgoers might want: a lovely esplanade, elevated viewing platforms, exercise equipment, bike paths, lawns, playgrounds, and sitting areas. Though it was obviously built with the residents of the nearby megaproject in mind, it’s also open for New Yorkers to explore.
Tiffany: “We came here from Valley Stream because we wanted explore both of these parks [Gantry Plaza and Hunter’s Point South]. I saw videos and reviews on Yelp and it turns out it’s so much prettier in real life.”
Jodie: “Yeah, the way they did the design and the waterfront and how you can see over to the city … it’s so beautiful out here.”
Tiffany: “This how we ‘play,’ by exploring new places. Emotionally it’s really stress-relieving, to walk around a different environment—it gets you out of your head.”
Jodie: “It’s so calming here. Watching the river is so relaxing, and there’s a nice breeze and fun people-watching.”
Beach 90th Street in the Rockaways, Queens
A prime part of the Rockaways, from Beach 91st to Beach 102nd streets, has been through a bit of a rollercoaster ride this season. First, the stretch closed because erosion caused unsafe conditions; now, people are allowed to swim near Beach 97th Street during low tide. But Beach 90th—long designated as a surfing-only beach—was unaffected by all of the above.
”Rockaway is really special to me, just a totally different world from most of the city,” says Nicole, a surfer at Beach 90th. “I’ve been surfing for six years and to me it’s play, it’s meditation, it’s fitness, it’s recreation, it’s a way of keeping myself centered and humble. It’s nature, it’s the elements, it’s everything.”
“The community here at Beach 90 is very diverse and interesting and vibrant and I love it,” she continues. “You get to know all the regulars, so you don’t have to come out with anybody because there’s always someone here that you know. It’s a pretty easy place to just go and find some friends. Only thing I wish is that there were more chicks in the water! Get out here!”