The City: Outdoor Rooms

For city dwellers, small neighborhood playground-parks are supposed to be outdoor, year-round rooms. Some rooms! Almost invariably the floors are asphalt, the walls are chain-link fences, and for furniture there is a never-changing assortment of head-chopping swings and lethal slides. Green areas are inevitably posted with KEEP OFF THE GRASS signs; when the signs are not obeyed, the grass wears down to dirt, seemingly overnight. When these outdoor rooms are also forced to function as community centers for all ages, chaos results.

In Place of Sterility. Last week, at the 19-year-old Jacob Riis public-housing project on Manhattan's Lower East Side,...

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