HELL'S KITCHEN — Back in the 1980s, Elke Fears was terrified of going to Hell's Kitchen Park.
"There was no light, and it was full of crackheads and drug deals," said Fears, president of the West 47th and 48th Street Block Association. Back then, children in the park were scarce, and cops even more so. "People were afraid."
But fast forward to this week, and the half-acre of green space on 10th Avenue between West 47th and 48th streets was filled with kids playing handball on one end, and in a playground on the other.
It's a transformation that came largely thanks to the local community, which decided to reclaim the park by hosting an annual Halloween party there, starting in 1987.
"The kids in the neighborhood, they [had to] wear masks," said Fears, of the party's inaugural running. "That way, you wouldn't be afraid — it was the only way to feel safe."
Without their masks, they could have faced retaliation from drug dealers who used the dimly lit park for their deals, she explained. For the first few years, dealers waited in the wings until the party ended, then came back into the park to resume their business, Fears added.
But as the event gained momentum each year, more and more residents would bring their kids to the park, and dealers were forced out, as the crack epidemic waned.
The party has evolved since then — masks are no longer a prerequisite at this weekend's event, and kids at the party can even take part in a horse-drawn hay ride around the block. There are also games, a barbecue, a costume contest (including a prize for "most spooktacular") and face painting.
Fears and other longtime residents marvel at the changes during the 25 years since the party started. Improvements include nighttime lighting and a fence surrounding the space. It underwent an extensive renovation in 2006, and members of the block association now tend a small garden there.
"But the Halloween party, it made the park more inviting," Fears said. "You could see it on that day, that it's not that scary anymore."
The Hell's Kitchen Park Children's Halloween Party runs from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Sat. Oct. 29. Children under 12 are invited, but must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.