NEW YORK—Children play in a basketball court outside the massive Grant Houses residential complex in Harlem. Three girls sit in the sun under the hoop scribbling chalk on the ground. “I’m drawing a castle,” one of them said. Others duke it out over a game of table hockey in the shade of a green canopy. Across the court, officials and police are setting up a ribbon-cutting ceremony for 1 of 10 new Playstreets opening throughout the city.
The Police Athletic League (PAL) has been creating programs geared toward improving relations between youth and the police. Playstreets is a summer program for children to have some outdoor fun in a safe and friendly environment where they can learn about teamwork, respect, and positive life skills.
“The 8- to 12-year-old range is a grey area. It’s formative, and an age where the peer pressure comes in from kids who are in the youth crews and gangs,” said NYPD Detective Cordell Cheatham. He investigates residential disturbances in the area from 86th to 159th streets—including Grant Houses on 1305 Amsterdam Ave. that has over 4,500 residents. He believes the youth programs run by PAL provide young children with the chance to have fun and a positive experience with the police.
“The cops will be here sometimes and then they’ll interact with the kids, play with them a bit, and then go to other sites they have to check on,” Cheatham said.
PAL Director Robert Morgenthau is a former district attorney who in his 44-year career saw many defendants go down the wrong path starting in childhood. He wants to help children get started on the right track:
“It’s important to have these kinds of programs that are day camps for kids who can’t get out of town. We’re excited about being here to see some of the young people who are here. It’s going to be a great program that’ll run until school starts.”
But the feds had different ideas, he said. “We were here for years, and then the geniuses in Washington decided that recreation wasn’t crime prevention; they cut off all funding,” Morgenthau said. The federal funding for PAL was withdrawn in 2008 and since then the organization has had to draw support from charity. Companies such as the Red Apple Group and Bank of America contributed to the $250,000 in donations that supported the opening of the 10 new Playstreet sites.
Locals expressed their approval of PAL and its work. Williesteen Moore, director of Grant Day Care Center, said: “They need some activities in their area that they can do during the day, other than just sitting around—too much television and computer. They’re not outdoors enough.”
Rosie Ford, whose daughter and granddaughter, 14 and 2 years of age repectively, go to the Playstreets, as did her other children before them. They had tournaments and a variety of other activities, she said. Before the opening of the Grant Houses Playstreet, she took the girls to a site located about 10 blocks away.
John Rhea, chairman of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which manages residential properties like Grant, said the program is vital for children and their neighborhoods: “Well first and foremost it sends a signal to them that ‘You’re important’ and it gives them hope that … they can be anything they want to be, because they have the good people in New York … and the instructors, the staff at PAL.”
The chairman said he loves his job, especially the opportunity to work with families and communities.
“I know that PAL helped me to get my start in sports and to learn essential life lessons … including giving back to my community and offering a helping hand to those in need.”
The Playstreet at the basketball court at the Grant Houses opened on July 29 and will run through Aug. 23, operating from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.