When your humble narrator was small, a treasured place to visit was the ramshackle (even then) play structure a stone's throw from Lake Merritt. The featured attraction was a metallic disc resembling a flying saucer at which Baby Boomers would shout, "Klaatu barata nikto!"
Kids clambered over one another to ascend the rusting ladder into the belly of the hollow spacecraft. Oakland was, and is, a serenely temperate place. But, on a summer day, you could fry an egg on that saucer or roast a chicken within it. It made for less-than-ideal playground experiences. But who knew any better? Your parents told you they were smoking "nonpoisonous cigarettes" and you believed them. The 1970s were an interesting time.
Ambling through present-day San Francisco, the sound of children playing may stop you in your tracks. We have so few kids living among us. (Children of Men seems like a documentary here.) Census data reveals only 13.4 percent of San Franciscans are under age 18 — the lowest ratio in the nation. That's down from 14.5 percent in 2000, 16.4 percent in 1990, and 24.4 percent in 1960.
It's not hard to figure out what's going on. Between the 1960 census and the 2010 iteration, San Francisco swelled by 65,000 residents while shedding 31,000 families. It costs $3,500 to rent out a hovel here. That's why the laughter of children freezes you; it's like hearing birdsong in the dead of winter.
The meek may not inherit the earth (based on demographic trends). But the city's extant children have been bequeathed public playgrounds worlds apart from skin-melting UFOs or any of the other dreck earlier generations happily fell off of.
It's a bit perverse that our dwindling tally of kids is left to revel in what must be our city's golden age of playgrounds. And it's also a bit expensive. Records obtained by SF Weekly indicate that, despite the depletion of our playground-going population, the city has sunk an estimated $44.5 million into revamping playgrounds since 2007 alone.
So, "number of city kids" and "palatial nature of city playgrounds" are diverging lines on a graph. But, on the plus side, our heavy investment bought us happy places less likely than ever to maim the few kids we have left.
Craig Faitel is a Certified Playground Safety Inspector patrolling the Northern California region. When asked to describe the regulations governing the apparatuses we grew up playing on, he immediately replies, "We didn't have any safety requirements growing up."
Structures, often crafted of arsenic-treated wood, were mounted atop asphalt, concrete, dirt, grass, or, perhaps most diabolically, wood chips. These seemed almost divinely crafted to fit into an adolescent's palm; a well-tossed chip could knock a young colleague from the play structure. Since, back then, no one knew what a "use zone" was, your pal could fall from one structure onto another and then onto another before coming to a rest in a crater of the very wood chips that triggered his downfall.
Well, no more. Wood chips are out and "engineered wood fiber" is in. The engineering component here ensures they arrive sans sharp edges, resembling the shavings at the bottom of a guinea pig cage. You could push a wheelchair across these. You could, theoretically, dump a handful over someone's head. But hurling it with malice is a stretch.
The aforementioned "use zones," in fact, are the hallmark of modern playgrounds. Slides and swings can no longer overlap. Rotating and spinning equipment is often segregated into their own corners, so rotating and spinning children ejected from the equipment can land with some degree of safety. With at least six feet between each structure, the chances of a domino-like fall are reduced — and, Faitel notes, 70 percent of playground injuries come via falls.
Gaps must be wider than the widths of a small child's appendages, torso, or head. See-saws are now equipped with rubber dampers, undermining one's ability to convert them into catapults, a favored pastime of earlier generations. Manual merry-go-rounds are enclosed or laden with "limiters" which, intuitively, limit the velocity one can attain before soaring off the device.
Finally, you'll be hard-pressed to find large steel slabs acting as makeshift skillets. Metallic slides, Faitel notes, should be facing north to reduce exposure to the sun, obscured via a canopy, and equipped with a sign warning those old enough to read that supervision is a good idea and so is hand-testing the merchandise before it's kid-tested.
"It's all pretty high-tech. The materials are better. They look good. They last longer," the inspector sums up. Then he pauses. "And they cost a lot more."
The $44.5 million expended since '07 went toward 38 playgrounds. Doing the simple math, that's $1.2 million a pop. In reality, though, there was quite a range: $8,000 worth of work went into the Jose Coronado Playground at 21st and Folsom; $200,000 was spent on the Presidio Heights Playground; 16 playgrounds absorbed upwards of $1 million; and $4.4 million was lavished on the Koret Children's Quarter in Golden Gate Park.
The paradox of San Francisco's playgrounds getting niftier and niftier as the requisite young people mandating their creation grow rarer and rarer is impossible to ignore. But it's also nearly impossible to advance this point any further than merely bringing it up. Woe to the politician who stands in the way of playgrounds for our kids (or anything to do with dogs or trees).
The mayor and the supes can't do much to materially impact the lives of schoolchildren. But they can allocate money to playgrounds. If anything, this is a ploy to retain what kids we have.
"It's a fair way to spend money. It's the right way. Nobody has space in their houses. You don't. I don't. You can't play stickball in the street anymore," says one city politico. As for the price tag, "It's one of those things where I close my eyes and I just don't care."
Yes, he has kids.