The Quirks of the Game: Playing Penn South’s Concrete ‘Field’

Simultaneous games at Penn South’s Blacktop, between W. 26th and 28th Sts. The trees and benches make up what used to be the right field. | Photo by Josh Rogers

BY JOSH ROGERS | I didn’t grow up with a backyard, but I did have “The Back,” the concrete,  rectangular play area behind my Penn South building. That’s what my closest friends and I called it. Our “Front” was Sandbox Park,  on the same mid-block between W. 26th and 28th Sts. The Back was mostly silver-colored back then and often called the Silvertop, but I also remember a large, oddly shaped bit of black tar covering the area. Needless to say it was not the most important piece of property to Penn South, or “The Co-Op,” as everyone called it back then.

Today, The Back is all black, and known as “The Blacktop,” though it’s officially part of the Active Recreation Area. This Chelsea rectangle was my main afterschool/weekend play area — and now that it has become my eight-year-old son’s favorite place to play, The Back’s memories  have come flooding… well, you can guess.

As a kid, it wasn’t fenced in. The rectangle doesn’t make a good baseball diamond for older kids, which is why right field was entirely outside the play space for our softball games. The right fielder typically stood on grass or the pedestrian path, navigating obstacles — although most of us were righty pull hitters so the ball  didn’t go there a lot. Still, the field’s quirks were so ingrained in me that even in college intramural softball, I couldn’t help but call out, to puzzled looks, “Watch out for the tree” — the distraction tactic we used to use against outfielders trying to catch fly balls. No, there were not many sportsmanship lessons without adults around.

After school in fourth and fifth grades, it was usually two-on-two softball, which meant self-hitting and using only three bases: second, third, and home. Somehow, we managed to summon the patience that the game required, seemingly far beyond our 10 years. The long run from home to second allowed the shortstop/outfielder to play deep. Hits were hard to come by and base runners were rare opportunities that were best not squandered.

It’s also where I played most of my touch football and street hockey, where I rode my bike, and later learned Ultimate Frisbee. The end zones were the small patches of grass/dirt that sloped up. The Back was redesigned perhaps two decades ago,  with new fences cutting off the old end zones, our right field, and the home plate for what we called fastball, akin to stickball. The pitcher threw a tennis ball to the strike zone, a chalk square drawn on Building 7’s brick wall. The game’s constant pounding under people’s windows, I’m sure, was one of the reasons for adding the fences — which, lucky for me, happened when I was an adult.

The new space, still roughly about 120 by 60 feet, works, and is better for residents, although it’ll never be as good as I remember it.

The large, unsupervised softball games aren’t coming back, now that there are fences. We worked out our conflicts, which doesn’t happen enough in today’s helicopter parenting world. It was only as an adult that I learned that sometimes some kids got upset when they were picked last for teams. I didn’t notice that, and I was picked in the bottom half a fair amount, depending on how old the other kids were. I always saw it as a fair meritocracy. You almost always got picked where you belonged on the talent scale, and then you played the game. I remember once a teen, several years older than me, knocked me down trying to score. Although it hurt, it also felt good because I held onto the ball and he was out.

My son and his four-year-old sister are too young to play there by themselves, but I am pleased to see small handfuls of middle schoolers and slightly younger kids playing without adults. On the plus side, the 12-and-under set is able to coexist with confined-space baseball, soccer, bikes, scooters, and skateboards. That’s what my son and his sister use it for. I’m sure there have been space conflicts from time to time, although I can’t recall witnessing one.

Near Eighth Ave., this well-maintained plant area behind Sandbox Park is fenced off from residents, and could be converted to a grassy play space for kids. | Photo by Josh Rogers

I’d also like them to be playing on grass more, but that has been mostly taboo in Penn South. I have many memories of being chased off the grass as a kid, although we were mostly tolerated near The Back, and they are allowed there now. But there are walkways and benches right there, so play is limited. There are other places that could be opened up. Five years ago, a few fellow parents tried to get another grass area opened for use — the north side of W. 28th St. between Eighth and Ninth Aves. I counted 20 grass areas in Penn South that could be seen and not touched, but there was no interest in adding play space. Near Eighth Ave. and W. 27th St., behind Sandbox Park, there is a sizable plant and grass area that is well-maintained, even though it is fenced off from enjoyment by anyone. It wouldn’t take much to open the Sandbox Park fence and let it be “for unprogrammed play,” if there was a will to do so.

I made it on concrete, though, and maybe I was better off working with the limits.  As the story goes, I used to crawl from grass to concrete as a baby. Maybe The Back was where I was meant to play.

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