For An Instant, City Streets Become Neighborhood Playgrounds
Ordinarily, the 1900 block of West Cullerton Street doesn’t lend itself to basketball games or hula hoop contests. Too many cars. But the late afternoon of Friday, Sept. 28, was an exception. Autos, and all other vehicles, got the bum’s rush.
On a makeshift stage in front of Gads Hill Center, residents, community organizers, city officials and representatives from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois officially inaugurated PlayStreets, a new program designed to expand places where children can play safely.
Karen Atwood (left), president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, which sponsors PlayStreets, shows off her hula hoop moves.
As the name implies, PlayStreets periodically closes off streets in Pilsen, Little Village, Brighton Park, Woodlawn, Chicago Lawn and South Chicago to provide safe, supervised space with organized sports, fitness and dancing programs. The aim is to reduce childhood obesity.
LISC Chicago’s lead New Communities Program agencies and partners in those neighborhoods, including The Resurrection Project, Enlace Chicago, the Network of Woodlawn, the Southwest Organizing Project, Claretian Associates, and Beyond the Ball, were heavily engaged in making PlayStreets happen.
“This is a great advancement toward implementing our Healthy Chicago public health agenda and making our city the healthiest in the nation,” said Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “Today also highlights the importance of working with community-based partners to make our city a healthier place.”
The Friday afternoon ribbon-cutting was strictly ceremonial. The program has actually been in effect since late August, when city blocks in the participating neighborhoods banned vehicular traffic for various three-hour stretches. The street closings will continue through late November.
Children play chess on a life-sized board.
The activities on West Cullerton were representative of what’s happening at other PlayStreets sites. A few kids shot hoops in the middle of the street. Others moved pieces on a huge chess board. Several more did running drills under the supervision of a coach. A handful of older residents huffed and puffed, trying to keep up with an energetic dance instructor. Meanwhile, plenty of neighbors were on the sidewalks, watching, particularly when Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois President Karen Atwood busted some nice moves with a hula hoop. She’d obviously done it before.
“This program allows us to reach so many Chicago communities and connect them to healthy behaviors in a fun and local way,” she said. “It also gives kids and parents information about wellness, nutrition and fitness.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield is the sole funder of PlayStreets via a $317,000 grant to the Chicago Department of Public Health.
While PlayStreets is a new program, the concept of closing down streets for recreational purposes isn’t. Rob Castañeda, executive director of Beyond the Ball, a Little Village-based organization that builds stronger communities through youth engagement in sports and play, watched the proceedings with the appreciation of someone who’s been there, done that, and is happy to see others following suit.
Enjoying the day are (from left) Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair, Beyond the Ball Executive Director Rob Castaneda, and Jackie Samuel and Graciela Robledo of Claretian Associates in South Chicago.
“This is how it starts,” he said. “You get a few people out, they have fun, meet one another, burn some calories, and before you know it they want to do it again.”
Castañeda’s seen it a hundred times before, often through the Hoops in the Hood program he organizes with LISC Chicago (also a PlayStreets partner), whereby neighborhood groups close off city streets for community basketball games. The point is not only to encourage physical exercise, but also to establish a community presence on blocks that have become open markets for illegal activity.
“We’re clearly not going to solve the obesity problem in a single stroke,” he said. “But you have to start somewhere, and this is a very good place.”
Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance – an organization that knows about closing down streets (it shuts down most of Lake Shore Drive once a year for the “Bike the Drive” ride) – praised the PlayStreets concept as an important connection between how we get around and how we can use streets for active living.
And Jason Eby, director of programming innovation and evaluation at World Sport Chicago, which promotes youth development through sports, hailed PlayStreets as a way to engage kids in activities that promote good health and community building.
Learn more about PlayStreets in this video:
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