Monday, July 18, 2011

The Hildesheimer Park -- Jerusalem Playground Review, pt. 1

Location: Intersection of Hildesheimer and HaTzefira streets, the German Colony (one block down from Emek Refaim St.)

Shade: This park is blessed with mature trees that make it at least partly usable throughout the day. Some of the play equipment, including one section of the large slide/tunnel complex, remains cool to the touch until around noon (at least), though the swings and seesaw become unusable considerably earlier.

Play equipment: The park was renovated about three years ago; a large sandbox (usually full of cat droppings) was removed and a decrepit old slide replaced with a state-of-the-art slide/tunnel complex. Swings -- a major attraction and relative rarity in Jerusalem playgrounds -- were added (though not the kind suitable for toddlers), along with a spring toy, a small carousel, and a seesaw.

Exercise equipment for adults was installed as well -- wonder how much use it actually gets.
In point of fact, I generally see the exercise bench being used as a regular bench, and have never seen a grown-up using any of the other equipment.

Age suitability of play equipment: The multiplicity and diversity of the equipment make the playground suitable for toddlers and older children alike.

Seating: Plenty of benches -- many in well-shaded areas.
Just outside the park proper, on the Hildesheimer side, an S-shaped stone bench snakes picturesquely around a tree. On the Hatzefira side, just across from the minimarket
(and in direct line of the foot traffic from Emek Refaim) there are benches facing the street. Overall, a sociable ambience.

Snack factor: Minimarket Maalomi directly across the street provides the full range of ice creams, salty and sweet snacks, plus a variety of upscale/American/healthy items, in keeping with the character of the German Colony.

Chevra (schmooze factor): This park has the advantage of its proximity to Emek Refaim, as well as to several schools and kindergartens -- factors that attract a wide range of age groups to it and ensure the social and ethnic diversity of its users. One encounters here permanent residents, tourists, students. Lots of locals pass through with their dogs -- a plus from the point of view of entertaining young children.
(Despite the removal of the "litter-box" during the recent renovation, there is still a sizable feline presence as well.) One often sees elderly people, some in wheelchairs, accompanied by foreign caregivers. On a given morning spent here, I might run into a couple of people I already know, while also getting into conversations (sometimes deep ones) with people I've never met before. On one memorable occasion, a group of some half-dozen women, most of whom did not know each other previously, got into a lively debate over the relative advantages and disadvantages of the Chorev and Makor Chaim elementary schools. Is it the crossroads character of the park that facilitates interaction? Does its openness on three sides conduce to openness at the interpersonal level as well?

Multiple uses within the park:
-- Play (and exercise) equipment that suits a range of ages.
-- Seating clusters that are distinct without being isolated.


-- The renovation that took place three years ago, though it vastly improved the park's play equipment, actually undermined its multi-use status. Prior to the renovation, one entire end of the park consisted of a lawn -- a raised mound of grass that constituted a separate and distinct area within the park. During the renovation the lawn was scooped out and paved over, and replaced with exercise equipment which, as I noted above, may not have been the best possible use of the space. I personally miss the lawn and feel that it added a dimension that is now lacking. People brought blankets and picnicked there; students snoozed there during breaks; it was yet another area for children to investigate when they tired of the play equipment.

This latter point is an important one: playground landscaping should take into account the fact that children want and need bits of nature to explore. One can't chain them to the play equipment -- slide, or else!

Likewise, the shrubbery lining the park's perimeter was fenced off, thinned out and overly "manicured." The pre-renovation shrubbery was much more open and inviting to children. I remember my older kids hiding among the bushes, finding various germ-encrusted treasures there ...
Before the renovation, this gnarled old tree had a wooden bench all around it -- another quirky feature that kids (and adults) liked. Basically, the renovation somewhat eroded the park's distinctive character -- made it more "generic," in addition to curtailing the variety of uses within it.

Still, you can't really ruin a park that has so much going for it in terms of location, shade, and openness.

Beyond the park (services and amenities available in the vincinity of HaTzefira St.):

-- Emek Refaim Street, a major thoroughfare and commercial hub, is a block away. Alongside trendy cafes and upscale shopping, Emek Refaim is home to more mundane amenities such as a smallish supermarket, a post office, a stationery store, and medical clinics, meaning that various everyday errands can be appended to the park outing.
-- Kindergartens, an elementary school and high school are clustered at the end of Hatzefira Street.
-- Grocery across the street.
-- Natural History Museum a few minutes' walk away.
-- The park's location at an intersection, multiple entry points and general open feel attract passersby (or "passers-through") of all stripes -- dog walkers, people on their way to work, school, etc.

Other nearby attractions: The eateries of Emek Refaim, and the taxidermy collection/weird 1950s-era high school science projects on display at the Jerusalem Natural History Museum, are of obvious interest to families. But HaTzefira Street in general is worth getting to know. It has a few architecturally distinguished buildings a good deal of greenery, and a couple of funky establishments -- a hole-in-the-wall pizza parlor and this tiny high-end toy store, Ritch-Ratch,
whose merchandise consists exclusively of imported wooden playthings. The store, owned by a veteran local resident, sold sewing notions until the abrupt switch was made a few years ago to wooden toys. The merchandise is actually very appealing; it might be hard to drag small children away from it. The store's sign still features a zipper and proclaims the availability of sewing items. I strongly suspect that one could still obtain a spool of thread here on personal appeal to the owner.

Hatzefira Street starts at Emek Refaim and terminates in a large parking lot, serving a cluster of kindergartens and schools. If you turn from the parking lot up the path that starts out from this little sport center pictured at left, you will come to a kind of farm/petting zoo belonging to a high school. The path zig-zags and includes a few steps, though nothing too difficult to negotiate with a stroller.

The petting zoo is not normally open to the public (during the school year I saw a sign stating that it was open on Thursdays from 4-6 pm, but the sign disappeared once the school year ended). However, the animals -- mainly goats, ducks, chickens and turkeys -- are clearly visible, and small children can be entertained here for ... oh, at least a few minutes ...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Back to the playground

When my older children were small, I often took them to playgrounds outside of our neighborhood, which was then (and is still, 9 years later) under development and, consequently, lacking in shade -- the main factor determining a playground's usability between 9:00 am and 4:00 pm. During the long summers when my three "musketeers" were babies, toddlers and preschoolers, it seemed I was always chasing after shade. I developed a certain expertise regarding the green spaces of central and southern Jerusalem -- could tell you, for any given park, which corners and what play equipment remained tolerable at what hours.

A few years went by. The musketeers turned into schoolboys, and playground outings became a thing of the past. I moved on -- into middle age, a more substantial work schedule out of the home, a new routine ... until little "Midlife Surprise" made her appearance.

Returning to young motherhood in one's mid-forties, after a longish hiatus, is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself; were I more of a mommy blogger I would write about it in depth -- well, maybe someday I will. Within the context of this urbanist blog, however, I will simply point out that the intervening years, my advancing age, and the fact that I have been dealing this time around with only one baby/toddler, have all helped to make me more reflective than I was in the past about the environments in which my childrearing activities are taking place. Whether that translates into more effective parenting, only time will tell. But it does unquestionably translate into an impulse to analyze the surroundings in which I spend time with my young daughter.

In the musketeer days I would just pile the crew into the Mom-mobile and take off for someplace shady, without subjecting my destination decisions to any particular analysis. Whereas now the playground outings are informed by a spirit of reminiscence and of comparison at several years' remove -- a state of mind in which attention can be paid to the disparate elements that make up one's surroundings. Moreover, having spent most of the last decade coping with the problems posed by defective neighborhood design, I've acquired a conceptual framework for analyzing the public spaces that I and my little one frequent.

The foregoing is by way of introduction to a series that I wish to present on parks and playgrounds in Jerusalem. I will, G-d willing, be taking a close look at what makes these places "tick" (or not). I hope that the series will be useful to mothers and others looking for good places in Jerusalem in which to spend time with (or without) children.

The series will discuss/rate playgrounds based on a number of set criteria. Some of these criteria will be self-evident and technical, e.g., level of shade, quality of play equipment. Other criteria will be informed by a New Urbanist sensibility.
In particular, I will be looking at the mixed-use features of parks and playgrounds -- both vis-à-vis their surrounding areas, and vis-à-vis themselves. That is to say, I will discuss the degree to which a given park is accessible to, or isolated from, other land uses such as commercial activities, schools, public/municipal services, and other attractions that a parent might want to know about. I will also discuss the degree to which a given park's design facilitates diverse uses within it, e.g. play equipment for different age groups, picnic areas, lawns, shrubbery, paths for bicycling/tricycling, etc.