A group of police officers gathered in front of 3333 Broadway on July 24, but they weren’t there to make an arrest—they were turning a schoolyard next to the five-building apartment complex into a Police Athletic League Summer Play Street.
For nearly 100 years, the Police Athletic League has been creating Play Streets—public spaces designed for children to participate in sports tournaments, play table games, and create cultural art projects over the summer, all supervised by police officers or criminal justice students. But the office of the city’s special narcotics prosecutor recently pioneered a new way to pay for PAL programs, including the Play Street that was operated next to 3333 Broadway this summer: money confiscated from drug busts.
“We were the first prosecutor’s office to use forfeited criminal proceeds from investigations to support a PAL program,” Kati Cornell, the office’s public information director, said. “It was really a model that our office developed.”
The decision to open the Play Street at 3333 Broadway, which is located at 133rd Street and Broadway, followed an arrest there in March that resulted in the seizure of $19,000 worth of drugs and weapons. PAL programs are based on the idea that children who have productive and supervised playtime are less likely to be drawn to drugs and crime.
Bridget Brennan, New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor, said that the program takes money from the drug trade and uses it to “create positive recreational opportunities for children.”
“Drug dealers have status in the communities that’s not merited, just because they have a lot of money,” Brennan said. “Effective enforcement isn’t just about making an arrest and walking away—it’s about helping the community rebuild.”
“It’s what I like to call prevention through sports and through our curriculum,” Richard Guevara, PAL’s director of field operations, said. “We have a prosecutor who has been savvy enough to recognize that the same drug money that was stifling the community can be taken off the streets.”
Maria Gomez, who has lived at 3333 Broadway for 37 years, said that the Play Street came during a period of decline for the complex.
“They used to have a cleaners and grocery store in here. They used to rent out the community room for parties and events,” she said. “But they never had anything for the kids.”
“Now they play baseball and basketball instead of being out doing”—Gomez paused—“other things.”
Twelve-year-old Craig Whitfield said that he was grateful for the program.
“It was fun—we played games, we went on trips, they treated us nice,” Whitfield said. “At the end of the day, they brought us cupcakes and soda. I miss them already.”
“It’s a good program,” 12-year-old Bryant Acevedo added, standing next to Whitfield and wearing a PAL T-shirt. “There used to be fights, but PAL prevented problems. It helped a lot of people.”
Guevara called the program at 3333 Broadway a success.
“We’re not necessarily measuring the crime stats,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’ve done our job if the kids remember the summer with PAL and made a connection with at least one officer.”
Still, it’s unclear whether the special narcotics prosecutor will be able to continue funding PAL programs. There’s no guarantee that the schoolyard next to 3333 Broadway, for instance, will host a Play Street again next summer.
“We never know whether or not we’re going to have those kinds of funds available,” Brennan said. “I hope other organizations might adopt a Play Street. Businesses in the area might be able to sustain it. Maybe Columbia University could adopt a Play Street.”