Skip to content
Marc 02

Friends of James Forten Playground

Published July 24, 2022


13 min read

James Forten Playground (formerly known as Underhill Playground) is a neighborhood gem and it is there to be enjoyed! Friends of James Forten Playground works with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and with NYC Partnership for Parks to help keep the playground an attractive, healthy and clean space for children to play and parents and care-givers to interact. Neighbors also appreciate the aesthetics of the plants and the happy noises emanating from the playground.

On June 16, 2021, Underhill Playground was renamed James Forten Playground, in honor of prominent abolitionist James Forten. You can read more about James Forten here.

Upcoming Activities
- SUNDAY Jul 31, 10am - Noon - Family-friendly cleanup activity at James Forten Playground.
Many thanks to Eric Kanagy for leading this activity!
Come help beautify our beloved neighborhood playground. Bring your kids!

Friends of James Forten Playground started as part of Park Place - Underhill Avenue Block Association's “Growing our Community” initiative to pursue responsible upkeep of the much-needed and beautiful James Forten Playground. As participants from across Prospect Heights spontaneously joined our activities in the Playground, we recognized the need to re-brand the group to recognize this wider participation. We have resurrected a previous "Friends of Underhill Playground" group with new membership and goals. It will continue to evolve over time, and what it will look like is up to the members.

Contact Den Gordon ( to be added to the Friends of James Forten Playground email list.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused NYC Parks and Recreation to see budget cuts and the playground needs our help.

Goals for 2020
We started in the late summer and fall of 2020 weeding the tree and flower beds in the playground. We also planted bulbs that showed their cheery faces in the spring of 2021. It became apparent that some of the tree beds needed more than weeding. They needed significant soil management as they had been trampled and the soil was very compacted. With this in mind, our 2021 goals are geared toward care of the tree beds including preventing soil erosion.

Goals for 2021
Our goals for 2021 include working on the area alongside Prospect Place, the entranceway tree beds and most importantly the tree beds in the center of the playground. All are severely trampled with erosion and exposed roots causing the trees to run the risk of additional damage without care and attention.

NYC Partnership for Parks arranged for Roderick Phillips, a NYC Parks Department gardener, to meet with Robin Ketchum and Den Gordon to advise on projects to address tree bed erosion. Roderick also noted that there were tree stumps and that new trees needed to be planted in their place.

Initially the plan was to plant shrubs in the tree beds in the center of the playground but based upon observation and talking to adult users this was not feasible. The kids like digging there and use the tree beds as a short cut to other areas of the playground. Soil aeration, wood chips and mulching were the approach we used, and we will be providing digging toys for kids to use in these tree beds.

A proposal has been submitted to Partnership for Parks / NYC Parks Department for permission to create an area along the Prospect Place tree beds for an exploratory digging area for the kids.

The tree beds along Underhill Avenue were planted with shrubs and daffodil bulbs and mulched in September and October. Temporary fencing was put up to allow the shrubs time to get established.

Education/information for kids and adult users of the playground is also a 2021 goal.

The area in the northeast corner of the playground is fenced. It is not known at this time why, but we hope to be able to reconfigure this into a productive & usable play space.

Goals for 2022
Our goals for 2022 include stabilizing the soil erosion in the tree beds along Prospect Place, aerating the ongoing compaction of the soil in the center and entryway tree beds and continued support of the NYC Parks Dept. maintenance staff. Digging tools have been purchased with funds from the stoop sale held in June 2021. All the activities are geared towards families working together to keep our gem of a playground safe, playable and attractive to all members of the neighborhood.

Funding for 2021-2022 Activities
We applied for and received a grant from NYC Partnership for Parks to support work on the playground's tree beds, provide educational programs and materials to both kids and adult playground users, and to run kids activities in the playground. Partnership For Parks grant image

Park Place - Underhill Avenue Block Association (PPUABA) also gave us a grant to help with the cost of shrubs. And through the generosity of members of Friends of James Forten Playground, who donated items for sale, we ran a successful "stoop sale" in front of the Playground on June 5, 2021.

2022 Activities
Sat Jul 16, 10:00am-Noon, Family-friendly cleanup activity at James Forten Playground. Our goals for today's activity were to remove the orange mesh barrier fencing enclosing the Underhill Avenue facing green spaces, and to remove weeds, trash and toys from those areas. The barrier fencing had been installed last fall to protect newly-planted shrubs and give them a chance to get established.

Despite low turnout and intermittent pouring rain, 3 stalwart volunteers "stuck with it" and got the job done! See photos below.

Here's a "before" photo showing the garden area surrounded by orange mesh fencing, full of weeds and toys thrown over the fence.
01 before - full of weeds

Although the orange mesh fencing kept little feet from trampling the newly-planted shrubs, it wasn't very attractive to look at.
02 before - orange mesh fencing

Three stalwart volunteers worked through intermittent pouring rain to finish the job. From left to right, ready for a hot shower and a change of clothes: Marc Gordon, Robin Ketchum, Den Gordon.
03 - 3 soaked stalwart volunteers

And here's the "after" photo - cleared of orange mesh fencing, weeds and discarded toys.
04 after - fence removed weeded and cleaned up

Sun May 15, 10:00am-Noon, Family-friendly cleanup activity at James Forten Playground. We thank neighbor Eric Kanagy for being our "captain" and organizing volunteers into various clean-up teams. Unfortunately, no one remembered to take photos! :-(

Sat, Apr 09 2022 First clean-up of the spring season
Our first clean-up event this spring included several activities:
- Spreading leaf litter (compost) in the tree beds
- Planting ferns to prevent soil erosion in the tree beds facing Prospect Place
- Identifying and discarding broken toys
- Sweeping compost and wood chips from the ground and placing them back in the tree beds
- Replacing broken stakes holding the temporary fence around the Underhill Avenue tree beds
Our work was temporarily interrupted by a hailstorm (!!!) which was followed by clear blue skies and 20 minutes later by a second hailstorm! Our dedicated volunteers stayed on (or returned) to complete the day's tasks.

This family enjoyed spreading leaf litter in one of the center tree beds.
Playground 2022-04-09 01

Kid-size tools for kids! Playground 2022-04-09 02

This tree bed was a beehive of activity!
Playground 2022-04-09 03

The hailstorm temporarily cleared most parents, kids and volunteers from the playground.
Playground 2022-04-09 04

In this photo you can see hailstones on the ground... only a brief interruption for our dedicated volunteers.
Playground 2022-04-09 06 hail stones on ground

This youngster found an earthworm in one of the tree beds and studied it. Prior to our work enriching and loosening the soil last year, the center tree beds had almost no organic material and there wasn't an earthworm to be seen.
Playground 2022-04-09 05 earthworm

2021 Activities
Sat, Nov 06 2021 Kids' Activity Day at the Playground
Wow! What a day!
The sunshine, beautiful autumn leaves on the trees, the interest and appreciation of adults, but most of all the enthusiasm of the kids who participated... their faces were priceless. One of the goals of Friends of James Forten Playground is to make sure the trees are healthy and can provide shade to all the playground users now and for a long time into the future. Each kid and parent was given a bag containing "My Tree Book" with activities and materials to help develop mindfulness and awareness of the trees in our playground. They could choose to make a tree, do a bark rubbing, decorate a pine cone and explore the leaf litter. Each family also got materials and instructions to grow edible sprouts in a seed garden at home. Thank you especially to the adults who expressed interest in volunteering in future family-friendly projects at the Playground!

"My Tree Book" guided each kid through a series of activities
My Tree Book cover
Each kid got to make a seed garden to grow sprouts at home
Robin 07 kid with completed seed garden
Kids made their own tree pictures using leaves from the playground
Marc 01 Dee and kid with leaf tree and pine cone
This girl's tree reflected the beautiful fall colors
marc 13 kid with her tree
A popular activity was to make cone critters with googly eyes!
marc 11 cone critter station googly eyes
A young girl proudly shows her cone critter
marc 07 kids with pine cone and drawing
Mom and child partnership making a cone critter
Marc 02 Mom and kid decorating pine cone
A young artist at work concentrating on coloring a pine cone (photo credit: Matt Weinstein) matt 04 P1005615-L
A finished cone critter in all its splendor!
marc 12 decorated cone critter
Exploring the leaf litter was a favorite activity of the younger kids
Marc 03 exploring leaf litter
The kids dug in the leaf litter using tools purchased with money donated to Friends of James Forten Playground
Marc 05 exploring leaf litter
Busy, busy! Robin 11 kids with leaf litter
Friends of James Forten Playground coordinator Den Gordon welcoming parents and kids to Kids Activity Day
Robin 06 Den behind table
PPUABA Co-President Robin Ketchum signed in participants and gave each adult a "It's My Park" t-shirt (donated by Partnerships For Parks). We all have Robin to thank for organizing the rehabilitation of the playground in the 1980's. (photo credit: Matt Weinstein) matt 02 P1370504-L
In the days prior to the event, Den Gordon assembled 100 activity bags on the floor of her living room
Den 01 preparations
PPUABA Co-President Marc Gordon set up the activity bags at the playground Robin 12 Marc setting out shopping bags

Sun, Oct 24 2021 Spreading mulch in the Playground's tree beds and planting daffodil bulbs in the tree beds along Underhill Avenue
It was a long haul, but a dedicated group of volunteers got it done!!! The Parks Department delivered a HUGE truckload of mulch onto the sidewalk outside the playground entrance, which we bagged and transferred to the tree beds inside the playground. There, adults and kids raked and spread the mulch, providing an extra dose of organic material to the severely compacted soil. Meanwhile, we planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs, donated by NY4P's Daffodil Project, in the tree beds along Underhill Avenue. Thanks to all the people, big and little, who joined in. Here are some photos of the day's activities.

Two huge piles of mulch, freshly provided by the Parks Department, greeted us when we arrived for our activities.
Marc 01
Neighbors John Crooks and Maria Leather joined the mulch shoveling and delivery team!
IMG 5484
Relief came in the form of neighbor Warren Fray, who joined to help finish off the mulch pile. (photo credit: Matt Weinstein) Matt 07 Warren Fray
Parents and kids joined together to spread the mulch.
IMG 5482-xx
Do we love the playground's trees?
Marc 02
Dad demonstrates bulb planting to two eager young gardeners. (photo credit: Matt Weinstein)
Matt 01
Friends of James Forten Playground activities are embraced by volunteers of all ages. Here's neighbor Adrian Gately, taking a short break from planting daffodil bulbs. (photo credit: Matt Weinstein)
Matt 02
We planted nearly 500 daffodil bulbs - here's a small sample. (photo credit: Matt Weinstein)
Matt 08 daffodil bulbs in pot
And this is what we accomplished in our last few activities - planted shrubs, mulched ready for winter... and in the spring, the shrubs will flower and beautiful daffodils will arise!
Marc 05
Excess mulch was bagged and made ready for next spring's activities in the tree bed facing Prospect Place.
IMG 6603

Sat, Sep 25 2021 Planting shrubs in the north tree bed along Underhill Avenue
Once again a group of volunteers gathered at the Playground to plant shrubs, this time in the north tree bed along Underhill Avenue.
08 - 2021-09-25 Marc 01
09 - 2021-09-25 Marc 02
10 - 2021-09-25 Marc 04
11 - 2021-09-25 Marc 07
And here are the "finished products" (for now) - tree beds along Underhill Avenue with temporary protective fencing to give the newly-planted shrubs time to get established.
2021-09-30 Marc 02

2021-09-30 Marc 01

Sat, Sep 18 2021 Planting shrubs in the south tree bed along Underhill Avenue
We transported shrubs, tools, peat moss, compost, bone meal and temporary fencing to the Playground for use by dedicated volunteers (including kids) to plant shrubs in the tree bed just south of the entrance gate on Underhill Avenue. Purchase of the shrubs was funded by a 2021 grant from our block association and by Partnership for Parks.
01 - 2021-09-18 Marc 03 02 - 2021-09-18 Matt 01 03 - 2021-09-18 Matt 02
03a - 2021-09-18 Matt 02
04 - 2021-09-18 Matt 05
05 - 2021-09-18 Robin 01
06 - maybe 2021-09-18 Robin 03
07 - 2021-09-18 Matt 04 Mary
Sat, Jun 12 2021 Weeding the tree beds along Underhill Avenue Continuing our work of tree bed preparation for fall shrub planting, volunteers weeded the tree beds inside the playground along Underhill Avenue.
2021-06-12 weeding tree beds facing Underhill Ave
Sat, Jun 05 2021 Stoop sale to benefit the playground
Generous neighbors donated items to sell at the Friends of Underhill Playground table and helped staff the table. In fact, at the end of the day, Den Gordon had more items left than at the start of the day, so she and Marc set up the table on Sunday too. All proceeds go to benefit the playground. IMG 5177
Sun, May 23 2021 Tree bed digging, wood chip spreading, and planting
We had initially planned to continue our work from May 1st to dig and aerate the tree beds, and also plant perennials in the northern tree bed along Prospect Place. And we did those things. But, three days before our planned event, the Parks Department made an unexpected delivery of a full truckload of wood chips! Our dedicated and hard-working volunteers stepped up to the challenge by shovelling, bagging, transporting and spreading the whole truckload of mulch onto the Playground's newly-aerated tree beds IN ADDITION to the originally-planned work. Great job volunteers! See the photos below.

An imposing-looking pile of wood chips!
IMG 5136
The wood chips were shovelled into bags, moved from the sidewalk into the playground, and spread onto the re-dug and aerated tree beds.
IMG 5141
Sweeping up the last bits of the wood mulch pile.
IMG 5143
...and there it was, gone!
IMG 5144
Some of the younger volunteers enjoyed spreading the mulch in the tree beds.
IMG 5146
Finished tree beds, after being dug, aerated and mulched. IMG 5150
IMG 5152
IMG 5154
IMG 5155
Friends of James Forten Playground coordinator Den Gordon rested with a cool drink after packing up the tools and preparing to call it a (very successful) day. Thank you, Den, for all that you do!
IMG 5149

Sat, May 1 2021 Tree bed digging and aeration and rubber mat weeding
Another fantastic day spent with kids, parents and neighbors working on OUR playground. Some serious digging was done in two of the tree beds in the center of the playground. It was so compacted and so deprived of organic material, there was not an earthworm in sight!
IMG 5086

IMG 5085

IMG 5082

IMG 5096

A useful activity especially popular with our younger volunteers was to clean the gaps between the rubber mats in the north end of the playground.
IMG 5094

IMG 5090

IMG 5088

IMG 5092

IMG 5089

Sat, Apr 24 2021 Flower and Tree Bed weeding, aeration and mulching
Parents, children and neighborhood volunteers joined together to weed and aerate the tree beds and spread wood chip mulch. Here are some photos of the event.
IMG 5064

IMG 5068

IMG 5070

IMG 5076

IMG 5056

IMG 5057

IMG 5059

IMG 5054

IMG 5066

Apr 10 2021 James Forten Playground clean-up (on Prospect Heights Community Clean Up Day)
It was gratifying to see neighbors, parents and so many children all pitching in to give the Playground a detailed cleaning. Below is a selection of photos from the day. Do you recognize yourself or any of your neighbors?

Coordinator Den Gordon arrives with tools and supplies for the playground cleanup.
Robin 05

Robin Ketchum helps organize the crew to get started cleaning before the sunshine breaks through and the playground gets full.
IMG 6224

Den Gordon discusses tactics with volunteer Daniel Fernandez (photo credit Matthew Weinstein)
FoUP Daniel Fernandez and Den (Matt)

Sweeping debris off the rubber mats.
IMG 6237

A creative way to collect the debris.
IMG 6225

Robin Ketchum puts some elbow grease into cleaning the rubber mats (photo credit Matthew Weinstein). FoUP Robin

A family at work together.
Robin 07

Heidi Rodewald helped give the rubber mats a good cleaning.
IMG 6234

Stacey and Matt Weinstein hard at work.
IMG 6232

We paused to admire the results of last fall's bulb planting.
IMG 6244

The output of a morning's work - bags of trash and broken toys ready for collection.
IMG 6241

2020 activities
On Sat, Oct 24th 2020 friends and neighbors planted 1,000 crocus bulbs at James Forten Playground in the beds along Underhill Avenue! The bulbs were donated by NYC Partnership For Parks.

The bulb planting followed several previous clean-up activities at the Playground - all part of PPUABA’s “Growing our Community” initiative. What started as a PPUABA project has grown into the rejuvenation of the Friends of Underhill Playground group (now known as Friends of James Forten Playground), with participants from across all of Prospect Heights.

Below, see photos from the bulb planting on Oct 24th, as well as from two of our previous James Forten Playground clean-ups, on Oct 4th and Sept 12th.

On October 24th, we planted 1,000 crocus bulbs in the beds along Underhill Avenue.

Park Place resident Adrian Gately planting bulbs in the northwest bed.
Bulb planting - Adrian 2

A close-up of a handful of crocus bulbs, which will produce early spring blooms. (Photo credit Matthew Weinstein)
Bulb planting - bulb closeup - Matt

A family works together to plant crocus bulbs
Bulb planting - family

PPUABA Co-President Robin Ketchum planting bulbs in the northwest bed. Bulb planting - Robin

Park Place resident Mary Hatch. Bulb planting - Mary

Growing Our Community co-ordinator Den Gordon did some final weeding before moving on to planting bulbs.
Bulb planting - Den

Underhill Avenue resident Stacey Weinstein planting near the fence. (photo credit Matthew Weinstein) Bulb planting - Stacey - Matt

A finished bed - will be a riot of colorful blooms in the early spring.
Bulb planting - finished bed

Please protect the flower beds!
Bulb planting - sign

On October 4th, we cleaned, weeded and re-planted the flower bed in the northwest corner of the playground.

A young volunteer hard at work weeding. (Photo credit: Matthew Weinstein) Underhill playground 10-04 - 1 young volunteer weeding

PPUABA Co-President Robin Ketchum displaying a removed weed. (Photo credit: Matthew Weinsten) Underhill playground 10-04 - 2 Robin Ketchum with a weed she extracted

Volunteers working with the guidance from Den Gordon, coordinator of PPUABA's "Growing Our Community" initiative. (Photo credit: Matthew Weinstein) Underhill playground 10-04 - 3 volunteers at work under the guidance of Den Gordon

Warren and Stacey rigged up hoses from across Underhill Avenue to water the newly-planted flower bed. Underhill playground 10-04 - 4 Stacey and Warren watering the newly-planted flower bed

On September 12th, we cleaned and weeded the flower beds in the entranceway and in the southwest corner of the playground.

North flower bed in entranceway - an overgrown mess.
Underhill Playground - 1 an overgrown mess

The whole Frenkel family (adults and kids) hard at work clearing the weeds. Underhill Playground - 2 Frenkels hard at work

North flower bed in entranceway - ready for re-planting! Underhill Playground - 3 ready for re-planting

Evidence of a productive morning's work - 10 bags of weeds ready for composting. Underhill Playground - 4 10 bags of weeds ready for composting

← PrevNext →
  • © Park Place – Underhill Avenue Block Association