“I would put a tic-tac-toe board here, and change the slide color to dark green, or maybe purple,” says Kodi Rutkowski, a fourth grader in Hudson eager to update his community playground. “I would scrape this stuff off too,” he adds, pointing to corroded spray paint peeling from a walkie-talkie system.
Kodi wanted to see if the walkie talkies still worked, and asked his five-year-old brother to find the receiving end. Tyrayne, more intrigued by a Spiderman action figure, skipped listlessly around the playground before stumbling to his station.
“Can you hear me?” he asked.
Kodi, holding his right ear close to the speaker, responded, “yes!”
The two ran to each other and smiled, excited by the new discovery.
Their mother, Bernadette Collette, a patient care assistant, watched over them in amusement. “I don’t let my kids go out alone,” she says. “So they keep out of trouble.”
For the past five and a half years, Bernadette has lived with her kids on the ninth floor of Bliss Towers, Columbia County’s only public housing project, located near the riverfront in Hudson. The high-rise building is almost 50 years old and contains asbestos, says Nick Zachos, the interim executive director of Hudson Housing Authority, which oversees Bliss Towers. His team is talking about the inevitability of demolition.
Since the early 1990s, this playground has stood in a 900-square-foot woodchipped area of a concrete courtyard that connects Bliss Towers to its low-rise counterpart, Columbia Apartments. From afar, the faded green and flushed rose of a 30-year-old Little Tikes jungle gym evokes cheerful childhood memories. But upon closer inspection, the playground is an example of the deterioration of Hudson’s public housing over decades of neglect. Beer cans rest on the edges of slides. Spray paint covers plastic melted from the putting-out of cigarette butts. Chains of safety bars rust from erosion.
Linda McGriff grew up here in the 1990s. Her memories are of a strong community with the playground at its center. “That playground was a really important part of my life growing up, because my mom couldn’t afford to take us on trips at all during the summer,” she says. “The only thing I always looked forward to was going to the park with my siblings.”
But McGriff, who still lives in Hudson and works as the director of education and child development for the nonprofit Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood, prefers to take her three children to a safer playground in nearby Greenport. That’s because of the dereliction at Bliss Towers.
“From what I’ve seen,” she says, “that playground is beyond rundown now.”
The Importance of Play
Play is crucial to childhood development because it helps build resiliency and tolerance, teaches kids to negotiate with their counterparts, and fosters their sense of creativity. According to a clinical report from the Academy of American Pediatrics, children living in poverty experience socioeconomic disparities that impede their ability to play, and consequently their ability to develop these social and emotional skills.
“One’s immediate proximal neighborhood, or the structures within what is in proximity to someone’s home, really matters,” says Dr. Dustin Duncan, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University. Duncan lives in Hudson and is a member of the Board of Trustees of the city’s newly formed housing trust fund. “The caveat is that we should feel safe in those environments. We need to make sure that those places are adequate, meaning varied equipment, safe equipment, and safe spaces.”
Duncan co-authored a study in 2013 finding that Black neighborhoods in Boston were less likely to contain open recreational spaces. His research determined the need for new policies to promote equitable access to recreational open spaces. More recent research about safe and modernized playground accessibility for low-income families is limited, but in 2020, a research article in American Pediatrics, the journal of the Academic Pediatrician Association, found that the environment where children live, learn, and play is directly related to their health and development.
“I think the most pressing issue in Hudson is that there is no room to play,” says Tamar Adler, a writer and mother living in Hudson. “It’s not about whether the playgrounds are up to code, it’s about what we want to provide for our own kids.”
But because the Hudson Housing Authority is overseen by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, there is little action the municipal government can take to improve the playground at Bliss Towers, according to Hudson Mayor Kamal Johnson and Common Council President Thomas DePietro. “That particular playground is a top issue and it’s absolutely terrible, but because it’s not city property we can’t do anything,” says Mayor Johnson.
The city of Hudson has partnered with the HHA in the past: In 2019, the city applied for an energy saving grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to purchase energy-efficient refrigerators for Bliss Towers. The funds from the grant, roughly $10,000 according to Zachos, arrived recently and are being used to replace outdated refrigerators with Energy Star models.
But regarding the playground, the city seems unwilling to apply for a grant in partnership with the HHA. Mayor Johnson indicated that the HHA would have to spearhead any conversation regarding a partnership to rebuild the Bliss Towers playground.
Instead, nonprofits and community organizations have attempted to pick up the slack. In 2012, Joan Hunt, the director of Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood, submitted a grant to bring a new playground to Bliss Towers to KABOOM!, a national nonprofit that builds community playspaces in under-resourced areas. And last spring, Hunt reached out to Play by Design, an Ithaca-based playground design company, to see if they were able to construct a new playground for Hudson Terraces, another housing complex in the city. Ultimately, neither proposal gained traction.
“It’s been barrier after barrier,” Hunt says, blaming institutional bureaucracy for the inaction. “I think the way playgrounds look in certain neighborhoods can say to kids, ‘You know, we just don’t care about you.’”
In 1972, the Hudson Urban Renewal Agency released a report titled “A Commitment To Progress” detailing the status of the construction of Bliss Towers, its first urban renewal project. The report promised a complete remaking of Hudson’s dilapidated downtown, with new affordable housing complexes, like Bliss Towers and Hudson Terraces, that would “rebuild a sense of community in the neighborhood,” with the purpose of creating “new and expanded park and playground facilities.”
A design study from the same year sketched out the open-space needs for the “low and moderate income families” who were expected to live in complexes. “Such social characteristics,” the authors write, “call for ample play space, informal outdoor areas for social gathering and sitting areas, with emphasis on the utility of open spaces as well as upon their aesthetic quality.”
Fifty years later, that vision remains unfulfilled. The Bliss Towers playground is a symbol of the worst effects of urban renewal. But despite the negligence, dozens of community activists and organizations are contemplating ways to reimagine Hudson’s downtown and help its lower-income communities as the city has become flooded with wealthy people fleeing the confines of city life for a slower and more rural lifestyle.
At an HHA meeting in April, Claire Cousin, the authority’s vice chairwoman, suggested a beautification day for the Bliss Towers playground, an event where the community comes together to plant flowers, pick weeds, add fresh mulch, and apply fresh paint. “Until the Department of Housing and Urban Development gets back to us on demolition and a rebuild of Bliss Towers, I think that’s all we can do right now,” she says.
Cousin, who also serves as executive director of the Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition, wants to try to ensure the neighborhood doesn’t deteriorate, even though her four children don’t mind the current state of the Bliss Towers playground. On the one hand, she knows that children are able to tell when playspaces are ignored by the adults who are supposed to take care of them. On the other, she admits that her kids are not picky and will play anywhere. “I think that the investment of people and power into that community is very telling through the playground,” she says.
Like Linda McGriff, Cousin remembers the playground in better days. Her aunt lived in Bliss Towers in the 1990s. “Our parents would be outside cooking and grilling, chilling in the summer, and we would be in the playground,” Cousin says. “They could see us, and it felt so free.”
Cousin went to school with McGriff. They remember seeing each other’s families growing up. When McGriff was in college, her mother became homeless, forcing the family to temporarily move to Bliss Towers.
“Me and my three kids slept on the pullout sofa for a few months,” she says. “The playground, and all playgrounds around the area, were so important because the boys and I were stuffed in that small apartment with all of our cousins and my sister.”
“Building up the playground is a necessity,” says Malachi Walker, a councilmember representing Hudson’s fourth ward. “I believe Hudson deserves good playgrounds with outdoor workout units and chess tables and benches.”
Kids Being Kids
As a single mother, Bernadette Collette relies on community support from the Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood and free play spaces to ensure her kids have a spirited upbringing. An afternoon with Kodi and Tyrayne demonstrates their love for play. The brothers note ways they would improve the playground, like the addition of a swing set, monkey bars, and a sprinkler. They run around thinking about how fun it would be to run through cool water on a hot summer day.
Their mother attributes their positivity to “kids being kids.”
“I always stress to myself, because I think of being where they are, as young as they are—they don’t need to know what stress is, and they don’t really need to feel that at this point,” she says.
Sometimes, when Collette looks at her kids playing, she wishes she could go back to a time when life was simpler. With inflation hitting a 40-year high this year, she and other residents of Bliss Towers feel overwhelmed by the costs of daily life and underwhelmed by the support coming from city government and the housing authority.
“There’s times when I look at myself and ask, ‘Can I just go home now and retire like them?’” she laughs. “I want to go back to a world with no bills.” Her daydreaming is interrupted by the kids chasing each other and climbing the slides.