“I would put a tic-tac-toe board here and change the color of the slide to dark green or maybe purple,” says Kodi Rutkowski, a fourth-grader in Hudson who is desperate to update his community playground. “I’d scrape that stuff off too,” he adds, pointing to corroded spray paint peeling off a walkie-talkie system.
Wanting to see if the walkie-talkies were still working, Kodi asked his five-year-old brother to find the receiver. Tyrayne, more intrigued by a Spiderman action figure, hopped listlessly around the playground before stumbling to his station.
“Can you hear me?” he asked.
Kodi put his right ear close to the speaker and replied, “Yes!”
The two ran towards each other and smiled, excited at the new discovery.
Her mother, Bernadette Collette, a nursing assistant, watched over her with amusement. “I don’t let my kids go out alone,” she says. “It’s how they avoid trouble.”
For the past five and a half years, Bernadette has lived with her children on the ninth floor of Bliss Towers, Columbia County’s only public housing development, near the riverfront in Hudson. The skyscraper is nearly 50 years old and contains asbestos, says Nick Zachos, the interim executive director of the Hudson Housing Authority, which oversees Bliss Towers. His team speaks of the inevitability of the demolition.
Since the early 1990s, this playground has occupied a 900-square-foot woodchip section of a concrete courtyard that connects Bliss Towers to its low-rise counterpart, the Columbia Apartments. From afar, the faded green and flushed rose of a 30-year-old Little Tikes jungle gym evokes happy childhood memories. On closer inspection, however, the playground is an example of the decay of Hudson’s council housing over decades of neglect. Beer cans rest on the edges of slides. Spray paint covers plastic that melted while punching out cigarette butts. Safety bar chains rust due to erosion.
Linda McGriff grew up here in the 1990s. Your memories are a strong community centered on the playground. “That playground was a really important part of my life growing up because my mom couldn’t afford to take us on trips in the summer at all,” she says. “The one thing I always looked forward to was going to the park with my siblings.”
But McGriff, who still lives in Hudson and works as the director of education and child development for the nonprofit Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood, prefers to take her three children to a safer playground in nearby Greenport. This is due to the neglect at Bliss Towers.
“From what I’ve seen,” she says, “this playground is beyond shabby now.”
The meaning of the game
Play is vital to child development as it helps build resilience and tolerance, teaches children to negotiate with others and encourages their sense of creativity. According to a clinical report from the Academy of American Pediatrics, children living in poverty experience socioeconomic differences that affect their ability to play and, consequently, their ability to develop these social and emotional skills.
“The immediate neighborhood or structures close to where a person lives are really important,” says Dr. Dustin Duncan, Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University. Duncan lives in Hudson and serves on the Board of Trustees of the city’s newly formed Housing Trust Fund. “The caveat is that we should feel safe in these environments. We need to make sure these places are appropriate, meaning varied gear, safe gear and safe spaces.”
Duncan co-authored a 2013 study that found that black neighborhoods in Boston were less likely to contain open recreational spaces. His research found that new strategies are needed to promote equitable access to leisure spaces. Recent research on safe and modernized playground accessibility for low-income families is limited, but in 2020 a research article will be published in American Pediatricsthe Journal of the Academic Pediatrician Association, found that the environment in which children live, learn and play is directly related to their health and development.
“I think the most pressing problem in Hudson is that there’s no place to play,” says Tamar Adler, a Hudson-based writer and mother. “It’s not about whether the playgrounds comply with the regulations, but about what we want to offer our own children.”
But because the Hudson Housing Authority is overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there is little the city government can do to improve the playground at Bliss Towers, according to Hudson Mayor Kamal Johnson and the President of the Common Council , Thomas DePietro. “This particular playground is a top issue and absolutely horrible, but because it’s not city property, there’s nothing we can do,” said Mayor Johnson.
The City of Hudson has a history of partnership with HHA: In 2019, the city applied for an energy-saving grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to purchase energy-efficient refrigerators for Bliss Towers. Funds from the grant, about $10,000 according to Zachos, arrived recently and will be used to replace outdated refrigerators with Energy Star models.
But as for the playground, the city doesn’t seem ready to seek a grant in partnership with HHA. Mayor Johnson pointed out that HHA would need to conduct all partnership talks to rebuild the Bliss Towers playground.
Instead, nonprofit and community organizations have sought to fill the gap. In 2012, Joan Hunt, director of the Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood, submitted a grant to KABOOM!, a national nonprofit that builds community playgrounds in underserved areas, to create a new playground for Bliss Towers. And last spring, Hunt approached Play by Design, an Ithaca-based playground design company, to see if they would be able to build a new playground for Hudson Terraces, another condominium complex in town. Ultimately, none of the proposals caught on.
“It was one obstacle after another,” says Hunt, blaming the institutional bureaucracy for the inaction. “I think the way playgrounds look in certain neighborhoods can tell kids, ‘You know, we just don’t care about you.'”
In 1972, the Hudson Urban Renewal Agency published a report entitled “A Commitment to Progress” detailing the status of construction of Bliss Towers, their first urban renewal project. The report promised a complete revamp of run-down downtown Hudson with new affordable housing developments like Bliss Towers and Hudson Terraces that would “restore a sense of community in the neighborhood,” with the goal of creating “new and expanded park and playground areas.”
A design study from the same year outlined the space needs for the “low- and middle-income families” who were to live in complexes. “Such social features,” the authors write, “require ample play areas, informal outdoor spaces for social gatherings, and seating areas, emphasizing the utility of open spaces as much as their aesthetic quality.”
Fifty years later, that vision remains unfulfilled. The Bliss Towers playground is a symbol of the worst effects of urban regeneration. But despite the complacency, dozens of community activists and organizations are considering ways to redesign downtown Hudson and help lower-income communities as the city is inundated with wealthy people fleeing the confines of city life and seeking a slower, more rural lifestyle.
At an HHA meeting in April, Claire Cousin, the agency’s vice chair, proposed a makeover day for the Bliss Towers playground, an event that brings the community together to plant flowers, pick weeds, add fresh mulch, and fresh to apply paint. “Until the Department of Housing and Urban Development gets back to us regarding the demolition and rebuilding of the Bliss Towers, I think that’s all we can do right now,” she says.
Cousin, who also serves as executive director of the Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition, wants to try to make sure the neighborhood doesn’t deteriorate, even if her four children don’t disrupt the current state of the Bliss Towers playground. On the one hand, she knows that children notice when playgrounds are ignored by the adults who are supposed to look after them. On the other hand, she admits that her children are not picky and will play anywhere. “I think the investment of people and power in this community on the playground is very enlightening,” she says.
Like Linda McGriff, Cousin remembers the playground in better days. Her aunt lived in Bliss Towers in the 1990s. “Our parents cooked and grilled outside, chilled in the summer and we went to the playground,” says Cousin. “They could see us and it felt so free.”
Cousin went to school with McGriff. They remember how each other’s families grew up. When McGriff was in college, her mother became homeless, forcing the family to temporarily move to Bliss Towers.
“Me and my three kids slept on the pullout couch for a couple of months,” she says. “The playground and all the playgrounds in the area were so important because the boys and I were crammed into this little apartment with all our cousins and my sister.”
“Building the playground is a necessity,” says Malachi Walker, a councilor representing Hudson’s fourth ward. “I think Hudson deserves good playgrounds with outdoor training sessions and chess tables and benches.”
children who are children
As a single mom, Bernadette Collette relies on community support through the Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood and free playrooms to ensure her children have a spirited upbringing. An Afternoon with Kodi and Tyrayne demonstrates their love of gaming. The brothers make notes of how they would improve the playground, like adding a swing set, jungle gym, and sprinkler. They walk around thinking how fun it would be to walk through cool water on a hot summer day.
Her mother attributes her positivity to “kids are kids.”
“I always stress because I’m thinking about where they are, young as they are — they don’t need to know what stress is, and they don’t need to really feel it at that point,” she says.
Sometimes, when Collette sees her children at play, she wishes she could be transported back to a time when life was simpler. With inflation hitting a 40-year high this year, she and other Bliss Towers residents are feeling overwhelmed by the costs of everyday living and underwhelmed by support from city officials and the housing authority.
“Sometimes I look at myself and I’m like, ‘Now can I just go home and retire like them?'” she laughs. “I want to go back to a world without bills.” Her daydreams are interrupted by the children chasing each other and climbing the slides.