The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) announced on Friday that in addition to Pony Field and Firefighter’s Field, they are reversing their previous mandate not to permit Capobianco Field, and will now be permitting it along with the Island’s other two operating fields.
The community will be able to use the Island’s fields on Fridays, and Saturdays until April 27 when the RIOC soccer program commences. Thereafter, RIOC will have the field Saturdays, and Islanders will only have access on Fridays.
Chart made by Lauren Blankstein details when Islanders can have access to the fields
This is not a new issue: RIOC’s excessive permitting of our fields is a long time complaint of Islanders. We have four fields – Octagon Soccer field, currently closed and undergoing renovation, Pony Field, Capobianco Field, and Firefighter’s Field – and many Islanders see one of them from their window. Capobianco Field was taken offline by RIOC President Susan Rosenthal just last February. The press release announcing the decision read, “To ensure access for Roosevelt Island residents, the play area at Capobianco Field will not be subject to any permitting and will always be open to the public for free play.” This change represents further loss of field access to Roosevelt Island residents and their kids.
Jessica Murray, RIOC’s Supervisor of Community Affairs, explained that RIOC made this shift to protect Firefighter’s Field, “Capobianco will be permitted to alleviate the overuse of Firefighter’s while the Octagon work is being done.” But that’s not right, permitting hadn’t even commenced when this release went out. Also, there is no mandate prescribing the amount of hours that RIOC is required to permit their fields, or that when one is down, another field must compensate.
Island dad and Cornell Tech professor Tapan Parikh is a two-year Island resident who moved here partly for the fields. “A large part of the draw of the Island for us was the proximity to the soccer field and other spaces for youth sports. Unfortunately, RIOC has never made it easy for our kids to play on the Island. On the weekends, Octagon field (when it was open) was usually permitted to off-island groups.” He notes that, “Things have gotten even worse since the closure of Octagon Field last August.”
A Public Safety Officer patrols Octagon field, summer 2018
The Battery Park City Authority, a public authority similar to RIOC responsible for developing and maintaining a community on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, boasts 36 acres of public park space. Similar to Roosevelt Island, the parks and public spaces there are the “backyards” to many of the nearly 16,000 residents residing in the 30 residential buildings in Battery Park City.
Battery Park City residents share similar feelings of ownership about their public spaces as Islanders do. “There is a recognition that this is a public space, but in every focus group, at least one person referred to the parks as their ‘backyard.’” There is a sense of ownership in the way residents think about the parks, manifest in their desire to safeguard these public spaces, and their uses. This highlights some definite tension around sharing the space, wanting to have a say in who is sharing it, and major decisions regarding it. As one participant said, “Unlike Central Park, this is a residential community. We want to protect this.” These sentiments come from The Park’s User Count & Study, a recent study of Battery Park’s green spaces, but they could have easily been said by Islanders. Our argument might even be stronger than theirs – a portion of our rents goes to RIOC and pays for the fields and their maintenance.
The Battery Park City authority permits their fields as well, but unlike ours, not only are hours carved out everyday for free play, on some days there is no permitting allowed at all.
Calendar for the first two weeks of June 2019, shows when their fields are able to be permitted. Unlike our fields, their rules state that metal cleats are prohibited. Photo from BPCA.ny.gov
What is most at risk of getting lost on Roosevelt Island is spontaneous and open play, clearly not part of RIOC’s calculus, but considered more valuable than organized play by experts. Islander Lauren Blankstein, along with other parents, has advanced the idea of turning Roosevelt Island into a “Playborhood,” a ‘classic’ neighborhood where kids play outside unsupervised and are in and out of one another’s homes. It was like that when I was a kid, but now it is something we have to, as a community, convince RIOC of.
In an email to Mike Lanza, the author of Playborhood, Blankstein discussed her vision, “The [New York Times] article about playborhoods struck a chord among parents here who are becoming increasingly frustrated by an encroachment on our children's right to play freely and explore our Island's shared spaces – of which there are many,” and about the Island says, “There is no better place for a New York City kid to grow up than Roosevelt Island. Its geography and thoughtful urban planning with courtyards, green space, and even our Tramway commute make it seem like it was created just for children.”
In a discussion about the value of organized sports versus pick-up games, Lanza argues pickup games have more value. In the Times article about the concept, Lanza’s neighbor, author Melanie Thernstrom, writes: “Mike feels that organized team sports fail to teach the critical life skills that he and his friends learned in pickup games they had to referee themselves. They were forced to resolve their own disputes, because if they didn’t, the game would end. Their focus was not on winning and losing, as when adults are in charge, he says, but simply on keeping the game going.”
Other experts agree – in a Quartz article, experts are cited agreeing that free play and pick-up games allow children the freedom to self-govern, create rules, problem-solve, and resolve social conflicts on their own terms. And on Roosevelt Island, where parents can see their kids from their windows, we have the unique ability in New York City to yell to our kids out our windows when it’s time for dinner.
Organized activities like soccer, violin lessons, and dance, do not fit the definition of play, says Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston University, who argues that modern parenting, with its emphasis on organized activities and academics over unstructured, free play, is probably the root of the spike in mental-health problems among kids today.
And again, the conflict around permitting isn’t new here. There have been many incidents about permits over the years. In 2009 a group of 8 - 11-year-old baseball players refused to surrender Capobianco Field to two teams from an off-island adult softball league. The children sat on the pitching mound after the conclusion of their Little League game that had run past the 1:30 pm deadline because of time spent getting the field into playing condition prior to playing. The adult team had allowed the Little Leaguers to finish their fifth inning, then took the field at about 1:45.
Some parents said the adults had begun practicing in the outfield as the Little League game progressed, intimidating the younger players. Angered, the parents told the children to sit in the infield instead of leaving after five innings.
In response to that incident, Roosevelt Island Residents Association’s (RIRA) Children Youth & Education chair Adib Mansour, then a coach, said that parents circulated a petition calling for more time for local teams and a limit on time assigned to off-island groups. At that time, they were told by RIOC that the Island’s athletic fields were part of New York City and, therefore, must be open to all residents of the city. RIOC promised, in a letter, that Capobianco Field would be available for unscheduled open play during the week.
Based on that promise, the parents discontinued the petition effort. Not long after, Mansour is quoted as saying, “RIOC has not lived up to its commitment in that letter. In addition, RIOC does not properly maintain the fields. The lines are seldom drawn in time for a game to be started promptly. Sand is not spread in puddles after a rain. And the scheduling is not done carefully – occasionally, two groups will find they were scheduled for the same field at the same time.” Sadly, ten years later, these types of complaints remain.
Ultimately, after that season, Mansour had his team practice on two occasions at the Rivercross Lawn because of lack of field space. There have been Little League practices held in the courtyard of Island House. Island soccer coach Leo Folla recalls playing soccer in the ‘dodgeball’ court outside the RY Management Office. Soccer practices have also been held on the grass outside the Manhattan Park Pool, and the grass between 20 and 30 River Road, all because Islanders cannot use their own fields.
Meanwhile, at a meeting in October with soccer stakeholders and RIRA representatives, RIOC’s Donna Burns said “Unfortunately, very few permit requests come from Roosevelt Island Residents. I wish I had the pleasure of granting more permits to locals.”
This begs the questions: Maybe there is something wrong with the permitting system. Islanders feel shut out. Why is only permitted use recognized? Why isn’t open play deemed important, and why are our fields permitted at all? Niv Betel, a 10-year old Island soccer player believes there is a compromise to be made, “Just permit half of the field, always leave a portion open for open play.”
Parikh, who co-leads an kids’ Island soccer group, said, “In six short months, RIOC has literally destroyed soccer culture on this Island. Throughout all of this, the one consistent theme has been the lack of accountability and transparency within RIOC. We have no idea when Octagon Field will be ready, who uses our fields, or whether any of RIOC's own youth programs are successful by any quantifiable metric.”
Blankstein has created a FaceBook page and wants interested Islanders to join this conversation. “We have an abundance of playing fields and yet because of RIOC’s permitting policies the reality is we have limited access to them for open play and pick-up games. Organized teams and groups (mostly from off-Island) are prioritized over our children’s right to play spontaneously in their own backyard....”