A $100 million five-story center for learning, deep in the heart of Harlem, typically wouldn’t seem to be cause for outcry. And yet … when that facility comes at the expense of nearly two acres of popular green space smack in the middle of a public housing complex, the backlash starts to make sense.
That scenario is playing out in a lawsuit contesting the construction of a Harlem Children’s Zone project. The innovative cradle-to-college schooling model was developed by the Children’s Zone, which has been led by activist and educator Geoffrey Canada for more than 20 years.
Construction on a 135,000 square foot facility has already begun: The playground where kids at St. Nicholas public housing complex played for decades is already gone, and so is the community garden.
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Some 92 residents are joining a lawsuit along with a New York state senator seeking to halt the construction. The suit says the project was rubber-stamped and failed to take in to account the demolition of the park.
In a New York Times story, Canada insists the project will move forward. St. Nicholas residents, like Frances Hinton, are not pleased.
“If it was a choice, we would have done without the school, but we were never given a chance to choose.”
The lawsuit begs the question whether a state-of-the art all-inclusive education is worth it if kids lose a playground, gathering place and communal area within the heart of their community. If what residents are saying is true, the sad irony is that the school, which banks on a nearly life-long and full-time commitment to the education of Harlem children, is taking shape without input from the community itself.
On the same pages of the Times earlier this week, research from a recent psychology study showed playgrounds, and not the sterile kid-proof new-fangled ones, are essential to a child’s development.
“Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground,” said Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway. “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.”
While Canada’s schools are widely praised for the intensity and attention paid to a child’s development, the newest project in effect wipes out an area where outside-the-classroom learning took place daily.
Kids in St. Nicholas now need to go a little farther to encounter those risks and fears, but not much:
There is a park within a block of St. Nicholas projects, but residents say their own green space was a luxury for the 3,000 residents. They could keep an eye on their children from home.