A Kids' Oasis Springs Up in the City

Community activism brings the first playground to San Francisco's Tenderloin district

For children living in San Francisco's low-income Tenderloin district, the typical childhood lament -- ''I have nothing to do'' -- is often overshadowed by a more serious complaint: ''I have nowhere to play.''

Without a playground in their 50-square-block neighborhood, they have had to settle for unlikely spaces: dark apartment hallways, sidewalks populated with drug dealers and homeless men, and alleys littered with glass and trash.

No longer. Today, on a site where a garage for state vehicles once stood, the Tenderloin Children's Playground opens, giving the neighborhood's 4,000 children and their families a safe gathering place. The $8 million project combines a paved playground with a two-story community center.

''What we're trying to do is create a real clubhouse for kids,'' says Robert Nist, project manager for the San Francisco Bureau of Architecture.

That ''clubhouse,'' a peach-colored stucco structure located on Ellis Street between Leavenworth and Hyde Streets, stands as a triumph of longstanding dreams held by youth and family advocates. It also illustrates the power of community activism.

Leaders of the Tenderloin playground project hope it will serve as a model for other urban neighborhoods across the country.

''The importance of recreation is underestimated in all the social problems facing urban centers today,'' says Tim Lillyquist, executive assistant at the city's Recreation and Park Department and project manager for the playground. ''It sounds trite, but with all the crime and drugs, it's a real alternative to hanging out in the street. A few dollars there rather than putting money into prisons is money well spent.''

Community involvement

Ten years ago next month, the directors of two neighborhood agencies, Midge Wilson at the Bay Area Women's Resource Center and Kelly Cullen at the Tenderloin Recreation Center, wrote a letter to the Recreation and Park Department, seeking support for a playground. They also enlisted help from residents.

''We got hundreds of people to testify at City Hall and at the Rec and Park Department that we need a playground,'' says David Tran, current director of Tenderloin Youth Advocates.

The groups also held community-wide meetings where residents could share ideas.

''We did a lot of talking to parents,'' says Ms. Wilson. ''They wanted a place that was sunny, that would be nice for kids to spend time outside, and that they as parents would feel was safe for children.''

After the city approved the plan, leaders sought public funding. About half the money came from the San Francisco Open Space and Park Renovation Program, which sets aside a percentage of property taxes for the acquisition, development, renovation, and maintenance of public space. The rest came from California state-park bonds.

From the beginning, security was a paramount design consideration. The entrance to the 13,000- square-foot community center includes very little ''loiter space,'' as Mr. Nist calls it. To get to the playground, children must walk through the building and past a glass-enclosed director's office, which offers unobstructed views of all indoor and outdoor areas. The elevator can be locked so two staff members can supervise the entire building. And the director can control front-door locks electronically. Adults will be admitted only when they accompany a child under 16.

''It's always a challenge to build something that's both secure and welcoming,'' says Mr. Lillyquist. ''It might look a little forbidding from the outside because of the fences, but once you get inside it's a very nice place to be.''

A welcoming atmosphere

Signs of a child-friendly environment appear everywhere. Skylights and oversized windows flood rooms and corridors with natural light. On the ground floor, a huge multipurpose room features volleyball nets and portable basketball hoops. Occupying the other end of the building are an arts-and-crafts studio and a classroom designed for drama, tutoring, and community meetings.

The second floor includes two classrooms, a patio, and a large kitchen with commercial-style stove. ''Kids love to cook,'' says Ms. Wilson. ''We also envision doing cross-cultural programs in the kitchen. Latino mothers could teach Asian mothers how to make dishes that are common in their culture.''

Two percent of construction money was devoted to art. Pastel floor tiles featuring numbers and symbols create what Nist calls ''a magical path through the building.'' And ceramic tiles around a drinking fountain spell out ''water'' in different languages: Wasser, muzi, aqua, pani, ecu.

Even fences outside feature whimsical touches, in the form of steel cutout figures of children. ''When the gate is open it looks like people are coming, and when it's closed it looks like they're waiting to get in,'' Nist says.

On the playground, colored lines define spaces for such activities as kick ball, tetherball, and hopscotch. To one side, swings, slides, and tunnels provide activity for young children. Evergreens, plantings, and trees bring welcome touches of green to a street largely devoid of grass and flowers.

The center will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week. Many parents hope city budgets will eventually allow Sunday openings as well.

Despite the security precautions, some residents express concern that the center will not be as ''criminal-proof'' as its designers claim. But Lillyquist notes the success of a similar recreation center in the low-income South of Market neighborhood. ''There's a remarkable lack of graffiti and vandalism,'' he says. ''The community really seems to respect it.''

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