The 43rd Street Playground

 by Laurie (Beckoff) Wellman

          When I observe young children in today’s public playgrounds - with the rubberized cushioning on the ground, the soft vinyl swings cradling their tender tushies, and always accompanied by a watchful adult, hovering over them to prevent the much-feared molestation or kidnapping – I think back, with a smile, to our playground on 43rd St. and Skillman Ave., named after George F. Torsney. (I can still remember the brass plaque with his name on it, on the side of the playground office.) I have only recently learned that Torsney (1896-1942) was a WWI veteran, an owner of a trucking company, a New York State Assemblyman, a father of five children and a supporter of public parks in the Sunnyside area. Together with neighborhood parents, including the mothers of Gail and Paul Gottlieb and Rita Zuckerman, he lobbied City Hall for the construction of the playground. It opened in the early 1950’s, much to the delight of the neighborhood children. But I digress.

 

          I was a very fearful young child, never a risk taker, terrified of ferris wheels and roller coasters, and I even refused to part with the training wheels on my blue and white Schwinn two-wheeler bike until, at around age seven, one of the wheels just fell off and I kept on riding, not having realized it. But I began going to the 43rd St. playground with my friends around third or fourth grade. We went to the playground alone, without parental supervision - not that unusual, since we walked to and from P.S. 150 every day, on our own. Dangerous times!  It was through my many adventures at the playground, starting with crossing the treacherous intersection of 43rd and Skillman Ave. on my bike (instead of walking it across, as my mother had admonished me to do), that I began to confront and conquer my fears.

 

          A typical afternoon at the playground – which had hard asphalt pavement (no rubber cushioning for us!) – started on the swings. They were hard, rectangular blocks of wood, covered in metal, and hung from heavy metal chains. The fact that they were slippery and dangerous was demonstrated every few years, when an ambulance had to be called to the playground to take a child to the hospital after falling off a swing, or, I remember one who was hit in the back of the head while walking in front of a swing. In spite of the risks and, again, in open defiance of our mothers’ warnings, we stood on these swings and pumped as high as we could possibly go. The next stop was the see- saw, where we challenged one another by jumping off the low end and thereby causing the person on the high end to come crashing down to the ground. Yet another courageous feat was actually walking on the see-saw, from the low end to the high end, never knowing when the shifting of the weight would send you crashing down to the ground, if you weren’t careful. But my greatest moments were on the high, metal monkey bars (with the hard asphalt way down below). I would climb to the top, and turn over and hang by my knees. That was a trick worthy of the Ringling Brothers Circus, or so I thought, and it definitely felt as if I was flying.

 

          Other fun things to do were the endless knock-hockey games, checkers games, and other activities played on the equipment borrowed from the park office. We also learned how to play tennis by hitting a ball against the handball court wall. A perfect day at the playground ended when the Good Humor (pronounced “gudjumah”) man, who parked his ice cream wagon along Skillman Ave., would let you climb up on his bicycle and ring the bells.

 

           We were city kids who didn’t have rolling green fields on which to play soccer or football, but we had the streets for stick ball, roller skating, jump rope and bike riding. And, we had the 43rd St. playground, where we learned how to defy gravity (and our parents), and how to confront and overcome our fear of danger. As we got older and went on to JHS 125, we girls gave up our childish pursuits, and entered a new, dangerous and even more exciting period of our lives. We went to the 43rd St. playground to watch the boys play ball. The rest, as they say, is history!

In 1947, Laurie's family moved into a two-family house at 40-30 44th Street on the Gardens side of Skillman Avenue.  She attended PS 150, JHS 125 and WC Bryant HS.  She had an active career as the English as a second language (ESL) specialist in the NYS Education Department Office of Bilingual Education, and was a Visiting Assistant Professor in the SUNY Albany Graduate School of Education ESL teacher preparation program.  Now retired, she lives in Saratoga Springs, NY with her husband.