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A Safe Place to Play

At first glance, there’s no confusing the kids and adults exercising in the middle of the closed-off streets with, say, the buff and cut human specimens seen in advertisements for health clubs and spas.

No, these streets – in Pilsen, Little Village, Brighton Park, Woodlawn, Chicago Lawn and South Chicago, closed off to traffic at intervals through the PlayStreets program – and these people, are a million figurative miles from the Ballys, the East Bank Clubs, perhaps even the Ys.

A simple jump rope provided plenty of physical activity to these young people at a PlayStreets event in Chicago Lawn last fall.

Tony Giron for Active Transportation Alliance

But their purpose is fundamentally the same – to get the body parts moving, the heart rate up, the pounds off. Oh, and for the neighborhood folks, to avoid getting shot in the process.

PlayStreets, a strategy begun last summer and spearheaded by Chicago’s Department of Public Health, periodically closed off city streets for three-hour intervals in designated neighborhoods so residents – kids and adults – would have safe places to play outside. LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program agencies and partners in those neighborhoods, such as Gads Hill Center in Pilsen, plus the Active Transportation Alliance and World Sport Chicago, developed the programming and helped turn out the crowds.

The activities – ranging from exercise and Zumba classes to hula hoop contests, basketball games and matches with giant chess pieces – are ostensibly designed to address the obesity epidemic that’s wreaking all kinds of health problems in poor and rich neighborhoods alike. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL) is the sole funder of this public health initiative.

Recently, PlayStreets organizers gathered to analyze the 48 PlayStreets sessions that occurred last summer and fall and discuss plans for additional street closings when activities resume this spring.

A stranger might not think the process of shutting a few blocks down to traffic and getting kids and their parents to shake a leg would be all that big a deal. But in Chicago, it is.

“Just the idea of parents and kids being in a public play space is a very big deal,” said Rob Castañeda, executive director of Beyond the Ball, a Little Village-based organization that builds stronger communities through youth engagement in sports and play.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair, Beyond the Ball's Rob Castaneda, and Claretian Associates' Jackie Samuel and Graciela Robledo at a PlayStreets event in Pilsen last September.

Gordon Walek

And it’s not necessarily because people would rather be inside, watching TV and eating snacks. In many neighborhoods, safe public play spaces just aren’t available. Some communities, such as Little Village, have very little park space. And in those that have parks, getting there often involves crossing gang boundaries and other urban barriers that threaten physical safety and well-being.

“Some of our neighborhoods have the highest crime rates in the world,” said Castañeda. “When you talk about public health in our city, to say that it’s about exercise is only a small part of the picture.”

For Jackie Samuel, the New Communities Program director at Claretian Associates who helped organize activities in South Chicago, PlayStreets is about “giving people permission” to come out and play.
“My target was adults,” she said. “If they’re not out there, that’s really important. It’s a no-brainer for kids to be out there, but they need their parents to approve.”

In other words, this program is about way more than exercise. It’s about safety and social cohesion and opening streets to the residents who live on them. And implementing such a program is, well, complicated.

In South Chicago, for example, Samuel helped organize PlayStreets events in four “zones” (i.e. areas of gang turf). For purposes of consistency and predictability, it would have been easier to have the events on the same block in the same zone every week. But that would have precluded people from other zones who feared crossing those gang boundaries from participating.

At PlayStreets events, even cerebral games like chess take on a physical fitness dimension, as these youngsters in Pilsen demonstrate.

Gordon Walek

“I’m trying to blend the borders,” said Samuel, to open the neighborhood up to everyone. “But that takes time. Jobs or sports are the only ways to cross those borders.”

Castañeda agreed. “How,” he asked, “do we take the culture in this place and bring it to other blocks?’

That’s just one of the challenges that PlayStreets will face when it resumes with Spring-PlayStreets, scheduled from March 25-29 during Chicago Public Schools spring break. The single-day events will feature at least three hours of continuous physical activity, including sports, play games and other group activities identified by the neighborhood-based partners. Up to six PlayStreets events will be scheduled.

The PlayStreets events last fall attracted 2,900 youngsters and 800 adults. According to data gathered by the partner organizations, 44 percent of the kids were “rigorously active” during their PlayStreets experience, as were 30 percent of the adults. Seventy percent of all participants were active as opposed to sedentary.

“It was purposeful,” said Samuel. “We got people who ordinarily don’t participate in these things.”

The question now for the PlayStreets organizers is how to get even more people out for future events.

Ryan Priester, NCP organizer with the Network of Woodlawn, who worked on PlayStreets in that neighborhood (and scheduled events in schools and a parking lot, as opposed to shutting down streets), recommended enlisting the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Park District as organizers, hosts and providers.

“Families have made it clear they need this to continue,” he said. “This is our [Woodlawn’s] first venture into athletic mentoring for kids. We need something year-round and we need long-term commitments. Because what happens when this stops?”

Posted in Health, Safety, Chicago Lawn, Little Village, Pilsen, South Chicago, Woodlawn


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