Thursday, July 21, 2005

Would the Real Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Please Stand Up?

A Philadelphia landmark, the Smith Memorial Playground in East Fairmount Park reopened a few weeks ago. This impressive place to play has entertained children in the City for a century, but amid its recent renovation, there are new rules that are limiting the way in which kids at Smith play.

Firstly, all children must be closely supervised, meaning kids cannot any longer just walk up and get into the playground. Parents can bring in a limit of four kids at one time - something that also is a problem from long-time patrons who used to bring many kids on behalf of parents that couldn't be there.

The reasons for all of these changes could be assumed by even the most conspiracy-obsessed crackpot: litigation and liability. Smith Memorial Playground, like the entire United States, has been mired in the new order of being afraid all the time, that someone may in fact sue.

Hope Zoss, the playground's new director, told Philadelphia City Paper writer Bruce Schimmel, "It's a litigious society. If somebody trips and falls, it's not the family's problem, it's our problem. The premise here is that adult supervision is required. We don't supervise children, we supervise the adults. We're promoting family."

Wow, what a sugar-coated quote. Zoss is trying to depict changes that will effectively keep out thousands of Philadelphia kids as something that will encourage family time. Zoss seems to have missed the chance to express in the City Paper article, that family time is scarce these days, probably because many children are suing their parents for not getting them the gifts for which they asked at Christmastime.

Schimmel raised a good point in his City Paper piece: that many City kids will not be able to play at Smith because they either won't have adults around during playground hours to take them there, or because there are such strict limits on who can get in and how many in each group. For youngsters from the Strawberry Mansion community adjacent to the playground, this is more than a drag, it's a nightmare. A great facility right in their backyard is now less available to them.

I made a trip to Smith Playground last weekend and noticed the crowd was considerably whiter than one would imagine considering the nearby community's demographics. Adults were nearly as numerous as children, and there were very few children that seemed to be from the Strawberry Mansion community. Most everyone had driven to the playground. I couldn't help but think how cool the place was, and how I would like to take my own children there someday - when I have kids.

But never did I imagine that Smith reopened with such restrictions and the power to turn away kids that are so eager to play on the massive slide so famous for decades, or in the playhouse that is more like a Main Line mansion.

Smith is a gem in our City, and we're more lucky to have it open than closed again. But who are we trying to ensure can play there? Who will be the faces of the new Smith? Are they supposed to be affluent kids that have nannies or parents staying home with them? Or are the gates to the park still truly open to the kids that are home alone during the day, or had relatives in the adjacent community that played their without adults with them for nearly a century?

Let's hope Smith revises it's won't. So who's gonna do something about it?

How long will fear and lawsuits rule our decisions?