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Chelsea Block Plagued by Student Fights No Place for 'Play Street': Locals

By Maya Rajamani | July 21, 2017 12:46pm | Updated on July 24, 2017 9:55am
 Students gather outside the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex on their first day of school.
Students gather outside the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex on their first day of school.
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DNAinfo/Maya Rajamani

CHELSEA — A plan to turn a residential Chelsea block into a “play street” for middle schoolers to take P.E. classes would exacerbate problems on a stretch where students regularly get into fights, throw trash on the ground and "frighten" neighbors, locals say. 

The Bayard Rustin Educational Complex wants to close West 18th Street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, off to traffic during school hours and use the stretch for supervised physical education classes and possibly recess, the city Department of Education’s head of campus operations, Nick Fiore, told Community Board 4’s Transportation Planning Committee on Wednesday.

But neighbors at the meeting said they feared emergency vehicles wouldn’t be able to access the street — which is home to the LGBT Callen-Lorde Community Health Center — and worried that the plan would do nothing to mitigate ongoing problems on the block, where fights between students are a common occurrence, several residents said.

“I’ve witnessed very big fights,” one attendee said. “I couldn’t even leave my apartment — I had to wait until the cops came to break it up.”

Crowds of students block the street in the afternoon, pay no heed to pedestrians trying to pass and throw trash onto the street, a resident of West 18th Street said.

“These are not children — these are young adults. They are taller than I am. I’m frightened by them,” he said.

“They’re bratty young adults, not kids,” another resident added. “And if this goes through, there needs to be security guards out there."

Larissa Gonzalez, a resident of West 19th Street, said students have thrown everything from cue balls and food refuse to “sexual and really other gross” items through the school windows and onto her roof.

“I don’t think it will be safe,” she said of the play street proposal. “The violence is quite dangerous on the street.”

Several rarely used playgrounds and open spaces near the school could be used for P.E. classes instead, residents said.

Moreover, middle school students “do not need a play street,” said Frank Lowe, vice president of the 300 West 18th/19th Street Block Association.

While Fiore said he couldn’t dispute the neighbors’ anecdotes — having “seen them [himself]” — he argued that having a play street would provide the school a reason to have teachers, aides and safety agents out on the street.

The seven-school building at 351 W. 18th St. houses around 2,200 students — up from around 1,600 or 1,700 students four years ago — and a mandatory recess for middle-schoolers often “monopolizes” its two gymnasiums, Fiore said.

Under the play street proposal, the street would be car-free between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, from September to the end of June, he explained.

“If we have a class in the street… we are paying more attention to those students and actively managing those students, as opposed to when they are simply out there,” Fiore said. “The one thing I would not dispute is, yes, P.E. is noisy.”

A security guard would likely be posted at the end of the play street to allow access to emergency vehicles, he noted.

Following the public discussion, committee members asked Fiore to withdraw his application for the time being to explore possible alternatives to the play street, address neighbors’ concerns and nail down a plan to deal with emergency vehicles.

“Once we have those things in place, we should be able to discuss what you want to do next,” committee co-chair Christine Berthet said, noting that the board “usually likes play streets.”

Committee member Dale Corvino, meanwhile, said he was “very discouraged by the fact that there is a community of residents and a community of students who seem to be completely at odds with each other.”

“I would like to implore the residents and the school to step up and change that dynamic,” he said. “It’s not the way we should run our cities, or… [the way] we should look at our students.”