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Playground Still Flourishes as a 'Safe Haven' for Urban Kids

January 10, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, JE Feature
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Old meets new: Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse in East Fairmount Park continues to undergo restoration and revitalization, thanks, in part, to the donation of one.

For more than 100 years -- and for countless generations of young Philadelphians -- Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse in East Fairmount Park has embodied the dictionary definition of what a playground should be: a place for kids to enjoy themselves without restraint.

The play space is tucked away on a tree-lined patch of 6.5 acres within the park, just off 33rd and Oxford streets, near the community of Strawberry Mansion. From the end of World War I until the mid-1950s, the area was home to many Jewish families, who'd bring their kids to play in the park.

For urban kids, Smith has been a place to go to enjoy themselves, be creative and feel safe, where the trees help block out lots of the city noise, said Hope Zoss, executive director of the playhouse and playground. She explained that some city playgrounds have become hangouts where nefarious activity can occur, but Smith has always been parent-supervised, and "a safe haven for children and their families."

The playground is geared for supervised children ages 10 and under; the playhouse is for children 5 and under, said Zoss. Rules are in place to keep Smith in line with the vision of its founders, Richard and Sarah Smith, who sought to have a site where all children -- especially those with limited financial and social opportunities -- could roam freely.

The playhouse is three floors filled with things to do, from a room stocked with nothing but blocks to another that features a large train to climb on. Kids are also able to ride a tricycle in the basement -- the area is called "Smithville," a land for toddler-age drivers, complete with a traffic light, gas station and parking spaces. Even on the coldest days, the playhouse remains open.

"Smith is beloved by Philadelphians," she added. "It has been here for over a century and has provided generations of families with wonderful experiences."

But time eventually took its toll to the outdoor equipment at Smith. In addition to normal aging, the equipment no longer met physical safety standards, reported Zoss, and so, from 2003 until 2005, the playground was closed for renovations. The appropriate amount of funding was raised, and the spot has come back to life in recent years with state-of-the-art items geared for youngsters.

The playground now features boulders to climb, a see-saw and spinning jungle gyms, along with many more swings to go around.

The featured attraction at historic Smith -- perhaps, what it's most famous for -- is its slide.

This slide is not some bright-colored plastic or metal contraption found at many parks or in backyard play areas. Rather, the giant wooden slide at Smith is the centerpiece of the outdoor playground. It's 10 feet high, 13 feet wide and 44 feet long, made completely of maple, and, according to Zoss, is a favorite during the summer months.

The Ann Newman Giant Wooden Slide, as it's formally known, was named in memory of the adult daughter of Ida Newman, a Smith board member and a benefactor of the playground. In fact, she earmarked several hundred thousand dollars to renovate the slide itself.

Newman grew up in the nearby area, when she was known as Ida Sopinsky, and said that she and her three younger brothers would walk over from their home in Strawberry Mansion to play on the outdoor equipment or inside the mansion-like playhouse. They would take along sandwiches for lunch, recalled Newman, who's now in her early 90s and a resident of Center City.

"I remember lots of good times there," she recalled. "It was our favorite place to go."

"Smith is the kind of place people remember all of their lives," stated its board president, James Strazzella.

Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse is located in a public park but is actually run by a nonprofit organization set up to care for it, and is managed by a board of directors, explained Strazzella. He said that they rely on the support of donations made from the public to keep the site open, free of charge, to its many visitors -- especially substantial like the one given by Newman.

Her generosity will give "other children the opportunity to play there, where she once did," said Zoss.

"We service a lot of kids that can't afford to go somewhere else," explained Strazzella. "It's a safe place for children in Philadelphia to go."

He noted that future goals for Smith include extensive renovations to the Victorian-era, multi-story playhouse, including a new roof, and the construction of an outdoor "tot lot," geared for creative play for toddlers.

The playground is open from April through October; the playhouse is open year-round. To learn more, go to: www.smithplayhouse.org.

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