Hester Street: Climb Around in Chinatown

All you need to know about taking your child to the Hester Street Playground in Manhattan's Chinatown.
When I first heard that the Hester Street Playground was getting a $5 million facelift, my heart skipped a beat. Just blocks from the end of the Manhattan Bridge bike path, the new playground would provide me with an opportunity to really give my 2.5 year old the morning of his dreams because his love for playgrounds is matched only by his passion for bridges and the wheeled vehicles that go over them. A bike ride over the bridge (wheels 1-2) would treat him to cars and trains (wheels 3-3,000 or so), and the quick turn off the ramp and up one block on Chrystie Street to the playground would be the Hollywood happy ending.
The playground has come along way from being one of the most run-down in the city to one of its nicest. There are more trees, garden beds, and seating, as well as new play equipment with bright red pagoda motifs that reflects the area’s current immigrant heritage. There’s also a great sandbox with two water features for moistening and molding the sand into sculptures. But some of the more creative aspects like the built-in musical instruments still have a way aren’t quite working out. Most of the new chimes are mute after only a few months, and in the two weeks that separated my visits there, the dance-dance revolution-style musical tiles seemed to have lost a note or two. (Let’s hope some of the $5 million was retained for repairs?) Also, the water sprinklers aren’t quite as cleverly designed as some of those in not just newer, but even older playgrounds we’ve explored. But quibbles aside, the playground is well worth a stop if you’re in the area.
HIGHLIGHTS
 
The big kid jungle gym: Monkey bars flow into ladders that lead to platforms that lead to a rope catwalk that expands into a star-shaped rope structure making for an obstacle course of fun. Intersecting this axis are climbing walls, a rotating spiral, and slides, while two ladders descending through holes in the platforms provide escape hatches mid-way through. Though my son was a bit small for the ropey part, he had a blast negotiating all the various attractions built into the structure, especially the climbing walls—one with rock-gym holds and the other with oval cutouts for inserting feet and hands.
 
The sand box: It’s big. It’s shadey. It’s got two water sources and a table for bringing out your child’s inner Rodin. Stairs around the edges provide stadium seating for parents. The water sprinklers just north of the box are invaluable for rinsing sand off hands, legs, and, in my son’s case, hair.
 
The car/train table: The toddler play area includes a resin model of a city scene comprised of a loop road, bridge, and buildings with nooks for playing model car hide-and-seek. Not surprisingly, a herd of small boys could usually be found around this feature. For those with apartments too small for track and road tables, this is a real draw, though with a pond located on one side, the diorama did seem more like New York City as played by Toronto.
 
The blue “spinnies”: That’s my son’s name for them. What look like short bar stools out of the Karim Rashid catalog, are really spinning seats that wobble up and down as you go round and round. They spin too fast for kids my son’s age—he nearly flew off—but kids about 5 and up loved them.
 
Esssentials
 
Bathrooms: The new playground bathrooms won’t open until August, but in the meanwhile there are public bathrooms inside the Comfort Inn just south of Hester on Chrystie.
 
Eats: There are an abundance of Chinese restaurants around the park, and a deli on the corner of Hester and Forsyth for your usual snack selection. However, my preferred nearby snack stops are two guilty pleasures: The Donut Plant and Economy Candy. The former is six blocks from the park on Grand and Norfolk, the latter involves a longer walk north on Forsyth and right for six blocks on Rivington. Both offer sugary delights that might result in extended playground time for calorie/energy burning.
 
Directions: The playground is part of the larger Sara D. Roosevelt Park, in a section that lies on Hester Street between Chrystie and Forsyth Streets. To get there, take the B or D to Grand Street and walk one block south on Chrystie or take the F to East Broadway and walk 5 blocks south on Chrystie. If you’d like to bike it, consult one of the free NYC bike maps usually available at city cycle shops for the best bike lane route to the Manhattan Bridge.
Caroline Bailey