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.
- 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 (email@example.com) 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.
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.
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.
Although the orange mesh fencing kept little feet from trampling the newly-planted shrubs, it wasn't very attractive to look at.
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.
And here's the "after" photo - cleared of orange mesh fencing, weeds and discarded toys.
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.
Kid-size tools for kids!
This tree bed was a beehive of activity!
The hailstorm temporarily cleared most parents, kids and volunteers from the playground.
In this photo you can see hailstones on the ground... only a brief interruption for our dedicated volunteers.
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.
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
Each kid got to make a seed garden to grow sprouts at home
Kids made their own tree pictures using leaves from the playground
This girl's tree reflected the beautiful fall colors
A popular activity was to make cone critters with googly eyes!
A young girl proudly shows her cone critter
Mom and child partnership making a cone critter
A young artist at work concentrating on coloring a pine cone (photo credit: Matt Weinstein)
A finished cone critter in all its splendor!
Exploring the leaf litter was a favorite activity of the younger kids
The kids dug in the leaf litter using tools purchased with money donated to Friends of James Forten Playground
Friends of James Forten Playground coordinator Den Gordon welcoming parents and kids to Kids Activity Day
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)
In the days prior to the event, Den Gordon assembled 100 activity bags on the floor of her living room
PPUABA Co-President Marc Gordon set up the activity bags at the playground
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.
Neighbors John Crooks and Maria Leather joined the mulch shoveling and delivery team!
Relief came in the form of neighbor Warren Fray, who joined to help finish off the mulch pile. (photo credit: Matt Weinstein)
Parents and kids joined together to spread the mulch.
Do we love the playground's trees?
Dad demonstrates bulb planting to two eager young gardeners. (photo credit: Matt Weinstein)
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)
We planted nearly 500 daffodil bulbs - here's a small sample. (photo credit: Matt Weinstein)
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!
Excess mulch was bagged and made ready for next spring's activities in the tree bed facing Prospect Place.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The wood chips were shovelled into bags, moved from the sidewalk into the playground, and spread onto the re-dug and aerated tree beds.
Sweeping up the last bits of the wood mulch pile.
...and there it was, gone!
Some of the younger volunteers enjoyed spreading the mulch in the tree beds.
Finished tree beds, after being dug, aerated and mulched.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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 Ketchum helps organize the crew to get started cleaning before the sunshine breaks through and the playground gets full.
Den Gordon discusses tactics with volunteer Daniel Fernandez (photo credit Matthew Weinstein)
Sweeping debris off the rubber mats.
A creative way to collect the debris.
Robin Ketchum puts some elbow grease into cleaning the rubber mats (photo credit Matthew Weinstein).
A family at work together.
Heidi Rodewald helped give the rubber mats a good cleaning.
Stacey and Matt Weinstein hard at work.
We paused to admire the results of last fall's bulb planting.
The output of a morning's work - bags of trash and broken toys ready for collection.
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.
A close-up of a handful of crocus bulbs, which will produce early spring blooms. (Photo credit Matthew Weinstein)
A family works together to plant crocus bulbs
PPUABA Co-President Robin Ketchum planting bulbs in the northwest bed.
Park Place resident Mary Hatch.
Growing Our Community co-ordinator Den Gordon did some final weeding before moving on to planting bulbs.
Underhill Avenue resident Stacey Weinstein planting near the fence. (photo credit Matthew Weinstein)
A finished bed - will be a riot of colorful blooms in the early spring.
Please protect the flower beds!
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)
PPUABA Co-President Robin Ketchum displaying a removed weed. (Photo credit: Matthew Weinsten)
Volunteers working with the guidance from Den Gordon, coordinator of PPUABA's "Growing Our Community" initiative. (Photo credit: Matthew Weinstein)
Warren and Stacey rigged up hoses from across Underhill Avenue to water 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.
The whole Frenkel family (adults and kids) hard at work clearing the weeds.
North flower bed in entranceway - ready for re-planting!
Evidence of a productive morning's work - 10 bags of weeds ready for composting.