July 16, 2008

Hey, New York Times! Okay if we build treehouses in Central Park?

Remember our discussion of the kids in Greenwich, Connecticut who built a Wiffle ball field in a public park — complete with a big wooden wall — and got the New York Times to write a flattering article about their kidly spirit when some homeowners complained about it? Our comments were varied and included things like:
Adults are such control freaks.

Still, you can't build things in a park and expect to get away with it. This is a classic example of Better to ask forgiveness than ask permission. It wasn't a vacant lot owned by some absent landowner....

The compromise is: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!
Today, the NYT publishes a set of letters about the article:
1. ...Don’t dismantle that Wiffle ball field. Instead, make time and space for unadulterated play in every neighborhood....

2. ... It is great for kids to “color outside the lines.” That is where intellectual, commercial and artistic innovation originates. These kids should be encouraged by being left alone....

3. ... Do we, the village that is raising these kids, want them to go inside and play Grand Theft Auto...

4. ... Perhaps property value in this Greenwich neighborhood will decline, but in this present market, I doubt anyone is buying. And even if the field is a drainage pit, grass is everlasting and will always grow back. But these kids have only so much childhood left, and soon all they’ll have are memories....

5. In Greenwich, Conn., a town known for its teardowns and mini-mansions, I would think residents would prefer the sounds of kids playing Wiffle ball over the sound of jackhammers and construction crews.

6. To paraphrase a saying, a kid’s right to swing his Wiffle ball bat ends where the other guy’s Nice Overpriced Suburban Escape begins.
With the possible (and very slight) exception of #6, which I've copied in its entirety, all of the letters support the kids' side of the controversy.

What if the kids of Manhattan grabbed some hammers, nails, and old lumber and built a lot of treehouses in Central Park? Would the NYT champion them too?

ADDED: My commenters are stressing the park/lot distinction. The Wiffle ball field is on a city-owned lot that had not been fixed up into what we'd call a park. And here's an article in the Greenwich, Connecticut paper today:
The head of a community policing group wants to create a pocket park on the municipal lot in Riverside where a group of teens - without the town's permission and with some neighborhood opposition - built a miniature Fenway Park for Wiffle ball....

"I can't see the land going unused. They weren't being destructive. They were just kids being kids," [Sam] Romeo said during the group's monthly meeting at the Cos Cob firehouse.

For the half-acre lot to become a pocket park, the Board of Selectmen would have to grant municipal improvement status to the property. The Planning and Zoning Commission would also have to sign-off on the park, which could face a third round of scrutiny from the Representative Town Meeting if the field's opponents request the legislative body's involvement....

About a dozen teens, who range in age from about 13 to 18, spent three weeks clearing the lot of dense thicket and erecting plywood fences in the outfield, including a replica of Fenway's Greeen [sic] Monster, bleachers, foul poles and a back-stop.

"The best thing about it is we built it and don't need permits to play on it," Scott Atkinson, 13, said.

The teens didn't just choose any old sandlot, however. Their field of dreams occupies prime real estate worth an estimated $1.25 million, a nightmare to the owners of several surrounding properties who are demanding that the town call this game off because of noise, traffic and liability issues.


kimsch said...

Isn't there a difference between a city owned vacant lot and an actual park - owned by the city, but maintained by the park district?

There's a vacant lot next to the house next to mine. The village sends a landscaping company through a couple times a summer to mow it. That's it. The parks are something else.

# 56 said...

Exactly. A drainage ditch in a suburban residental area is not analogous to Central Park.
Who knows what the Times would say? I suppose it would hinge on whether Collins and Dowd took their meds.

KCFleming said...

Okay if we build treehouses in Central Park?

NYT: It depends on the race, gender, and religion of the builders.

kjbe said...

I'll bet some kids have already beat you to the punch.

AllenS said...

The reason that tree houses won't be built in Central Park is the simple fact that if you do, some bum would move in. Squatters rights.

We built them when I was a kid, and we called them forts. No girls allowed.

MadisonMan said...

I missed that it wasn't a park, just a lot -- but why would a city own vacant lots that aren't parks? That's silly. They aren't collecting taxes on the property, and they're sitting on their assets. I think the people of Greenwich should be more upset about that than anything else.

AllenS is right -- you build a treehouse in Central Park and a homeless person will quickly no longer be homeless.

Triangle Man said...

Madison Man, I think the term for the land is c"vacant lot" if you support the kids and "green space" or "conservatory" if you oppose them.

Simon said...

Ann said...
"[A]ll of the letters support the kids' side of the controversy."

Another example, I suspect, of lamppost journalism. Are we to believe that all the letters they received support the kids side of the "controversy"? Or do we think that in selecting which letters to publish, the Times is speaking through the agency of its readers?

former law student said...

When I was a kid, unbuilt-on lots were called "prairies," and kids built forts, or tree forts, out of scrap lumber, etc. In the winter, you built snow forts and had snowball wars.

As far as boys only in the fort: Friends of mine lived in an old farmhouse that anchored a fifties subdivision. My buddy reported that he had been hearing strange noises from under the back porch. When he finally went to investigate, a girl and two boys, all around 12, ran out and took off. From the debris they left, they had apparently been doing a little practical fieldwork for a non-existent sex ed class. My friend repaired the siding where they had gotten in.

LutherM said...

"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose
Freedom ain't worth nothing but it's free"
Wiffle ball players of all countries, unite! Let the ruling classes tremble at a wiffle ball revolution. The wiffle ball players have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Anonymous said...

The treehouse is a bad analogy. A more apt one would be the city cracking down on kids playing stickball.

Icepick said...

[B]ut why would a city own vacant lots that aren't parks?

Monetary reasons. Parks would require more maintenance than a vacant lot, even a vacant lot that was occasionally landscaped. Also, a designating it as a park might require that certain facilities be on hand (water fountains, bathrooms) and that insurance coverage exist to cover liability.

In short, a vacant lot will cost less than a park, even a park with minimal facilities. "No Trespassing" signs are cheap, insurance isn't.

AllenS said...

By the time I got interested in girls, taking them to the tree fort was out of the question. There were magazines in there that had pictures of women without shirts on! circa 1950's.

I'm Full of Soup said...

NYT would support the idea but only if the kids agreed to wear hardhat helmets while in construction, put safety nets below the treehouse, secured the necessary permits from city hall drones, and kept their city real estate taxes paid up.

Lastly the kids must agree they will not name it "The He-Man Woman Haters Club". Heh.

Paddy O said...

I simply mourn for the loss of Trooper York, who no longer graces us with a quip or quote since the return to Madison.

Alas, poor Trooper! A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

Anonymous said...

It's pathetically easy to support activities that are happening next door to someone else. Imagine the cries of outrage from upper Manhattan residents with prime property overlooking Central Park if ratty looking tree houses (and likely other things) began to intrude on the multi-million dollar views. Not gonna happen.

Kennedy. Wind farm.

MadisonMan said...

Which TV show will steal this plot this year? Which network will have an Original Movie?

Dust Bunny Queen said...

The teens didn't just choose any old sandlot, however. Their field of dreams occupies prime real estate worth an estimated $1.25 million, a nightmare to the owners of several surrounding properties who are demanding that the town call this game off because of noise, traffic and liability issues.

So what? The price of the vacant and unimproved lot should have nothing to do with this.

The disingenuousness of the neighbors "worrying" about liability is laughable. Who's liability? Noise and traffic may be annoying but again....so what. The neighbors don't own the lot and have no control over any legitimate usage of the property. Whether the teens are legitimate is another question.

What if the city sold the lot to a low income home developer who built an apartment complex on the land and filled it with welfare recipients? How about a 7-11 strip mall complex? They would still be annoyed. The problem is the snooty neighbors thought that the land was be default a part of their ambiance and de facto backyards. Tough.

I'm Full of Soup said...

Nothing ratty looking about this treehouse in Baltimore:


Richard Dolan said...

"What if the kids of Manhattan grabbed some hammers, nails, and old lumber and built a lot of treehouses in Central Park? Would the NYT champion them too?"

A little history helps here, but since we're talking about NYC, it's not going to come all wrapped in the cute Ozzie-and-Harriet decorator colors that Greenwich presents. Doesn't anyone remember all the Calcutta on the Hudson stuff that inspired movies like Escape from NY?

The truth is that NYC has had people squatting and building hovels in City parks for a long time, and (unfortunately) it's starting to make a comeback. One examle: Tompkins Sq Park (in Alphabet City, Lower ES) was ground zero for that in the early days of the Guiliani administration, after it had been taken over as a homeless encampment. The City tolerated the build-up of that mess during the end of Koch-time and throughout Dinkins-time, but things changed with the Coming of Rudy. The City went in with heavy machinery and a small army of sani-men and cops. They leveled the huts that had been built, tossed all of the accumulated junk that the squatters had dumped by their encampments, etc. The whole thing turned into a near riot.

The same thing was happening back then in all the parks and along a lot of sidewalk space too. And then the City put a stop to it.

The NYT covered it all extensively, and (if memory serves) was not rooting unconditionally for the squatters (but they couldn't bring themselves to root for Rudy either).

KCFleming said...

It could never happen in New York, unless of course there were bribes, vote logrolling, or sexual favors involved.

These activities did not used to fall under the penumbra of teen ability, but these days who knows?

If they know any good call girls or have mummies and daddies with money to donate to Democrats, the treehouse is as good as built. A Sulzberger scion could get it done.

walter neff said...

Mayor Bloomberg has already sold the rights to make condos in Central Park to Bruce Ratner so this is not an issue.

Construction starts in 2010.

rhhardin said...

I'd suggest a NO GIRLZ treehouse as a test case.

LutherM said...

This issue seems to be growing into an epic, a saga. Somehow, this afternoon I don't feel like a piranha "skeletonizing sacred cows with cruel impunity."

But I'll give it a try:

"The teens didn't just choose any old sandlot, however. Their field of dreams occupies prime real estate worth an estimated $1.25 million, a nightmare to the owners of several surrounding properties who are demanding that the town call this game off because of noise, traffic and liability issues."

What would you rather have next door - a group of kids playing wiffle ball, or the Skakels?

Think about it - the government exists by the consent of the people. The government owns the land, which is underutilized. The wealthy private property owners feel aggrieved. So they try to control what kids (who are people) do.

I don't really believe that PROPERTY IS THEFT - and MILLIONAIRES ARE THIEVES, (at least not all of them). But actions in Greenwich, Connecticut provides a better argument for Marxism than any heard for years from either Berkley or the People's Republic of Madison.

PUT IT TO A VOTE OF THE CITIZENS. The process is known as Initiative - similar to Referendum - something that the Republicans - Progressives like Norris and Lafollette - popularized over 100 years ago.

I still believe in Democracy - and I think the kids would win.
I still believe in Jefferson “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

(But not as much as I believe in Jefferson Airplane
One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small,
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all.
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall.

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall,
Tell 'em a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call.
Call Alice
When she was just small.

When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you've just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low.
Go ask Alice
I think she'll know.

When logic and proportion
Have fallen softly dead,
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's "off with her head!"
Remember what the dormouse said:
"Feed your head. Feed your head. Feed your head"

Jefferson Airplane, White Rabbit)

Unknown said...

I'm just surprised the Greenwich police don't arrest or at least hassle them for loitering or trespassing. I live about half an hour a way, and I'm pretty sure that is what would happen if kids did that in my town.

Randy said...

That Greenwich property looks like a fine location for a 24-hour-a-day skateboard park. Lots of lights for safety. Maybe a few handball/racquetball courts.