As happy kids scrambled around the new playground equipment on a sunny Thursday morning, equally happy adults announced the official reopening of Neufeld Playground in Riverside Park. The beloved Upper West Side play spot had closed for over seven months to undergo a $900,000 renovation, and parents, caretakers and children gathered for the revamped playground’s ribbon-cutting (and cake-cutting) last week.
“This playground was originally built in 1937,” Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said at the ceremony. “By the 1990s it had fallen into disrepair, and [Henry Neufeld] stepped forward, and as one of his last acts of philanthropy, he funded the reconstruction and provided the endowment. That was 20 years ago; it’s amazing what can happen to a playground that gets heavy use in 20 years, and it needed another fix-up.”
The biggest change to the playground was the installation of new play equipment, which has already proven popular with local kids. There are separate sections, designed for toddlers and for older children, as well as a space in the middle with benches that surround the park’s iconic elephant statues that spray water from their trunks, allowing parents and nannies to keep an eye on both areas of “Elephant Playground.” The department added a ledge surrounding the giant sandbox so kids and parents can sit on it, as well as a handicap-accessible sand table so that disabled children can get into the sand too. There is also an ADA-accessible swing on the new swing set, new safety surfacing, and new plantings in the gardens surrounding the equipment.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, whose office allocated $500,000 in capital funds for the renovation, praised Benepe and the Riverside Park Fund for pushing for the revitalization of the park and getting it done.
“I went this past weekend to P.S. 199 to the playground with my wife and my little guy, 8-month-old Max, and for the first time put Max on the swing in the park, and it was this overwhelming experience,” said Stringer. “It really is an amazing experience when you realize that this really matters to kids and parents, because, let’s face it, we live in this big urban center.”
Council Member Gale Brewer, who channeled $400,000 of funding to the renovation, hailed the project’s landscape architect, Margaret Bracken, for designing such a beautiful new play area.
“Every dollar of your money … that we can allocate to Riverside Park is well spent, because it is thoughtful, it has soul and commitment and it’s something that we can be proud of for generations to come,” Brewer said.
Bracken said that when she was redesigning the playground, she wanted to preserve some original elements like the giant leafy trees that shade the toddler area, and pay homage to long-lost parts of the original design.
“In the early designs from the 1930s and 1940s, those Moses-era playgrounds, they actually had little playhouses in them,” Bracken said, explaining why she decided to include a modern playhouse in the toddler section.
For the older kids, parent feedback drove her to create a more inventive structure.
“The unit that was there before wasn’t really challenging enough,” Bracken said. “Parents now become very involved in the selection of the units, and they wanted something that had a lot more climbing, swinging, upper body components, as well as, of course, good slides and all the traditional elements.”
Benepe, who paused frequently during speaking to joke with the kids at the playground, is leaving his post as commissioner to become the Urban Programs Director at the Trust for Public Land. He acknowledged this was most likely his last ribbon cutting as parks commissioner and said he’ll miss events such as this.
“What I do love about this job is that I have a great excuse to go hang out in playgrounds,” Benepe said.
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