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NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: GREENWICH VILLAGE; From Welfare to Work, Through a Playground Gate

Published: January 25, 1998

Publication: The New York Times

By Barbara Stewart

When assigned to workfare three years ago, Deborah McDowell, 47, a Bronx resident, did not see it as pointless grunt work for near-starvation wages. Instead, she saw a rare chance to push back into the world of self-supporting adults, of people who can pay their way without depending on a grouchy, grudging governmental Dad.

Around 1995, Ms. McDowell’s piecemeal jobs had dried up. She was middle-aged and broke, with a high school degree. She turned to the Welfare Department, which sent her to tend Abingdon Square Park and Bleecker Playground in the West Village.

”I had seen a door open,” she said. ”I knew I could jump in. I could show them what I could do so they’d be yelling, ‘Deborah! Deborah!’ ”

Now, the door — more precisely, the wrought-iron playground gate — has swung wide. She has gone from workfare and food stamps to a full-time city job, with benefits, paid vacations and security. It happened as she had predicted: the local parents demanded that she stay, and they are backing it up with their own cash.

The residents, as members of the West Village Community Alliance for Parks and Playground, made the deal with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. It would hire her as a full-time attendant, for $16,000 a year. The city would pay $6,000, the residents $10,000. Such a public-private partnership has been tried in only a few other parks.

Henry J. Stern, Parks Commissioner, said, ”If people want something extra, like a full-time park attendant, we’re open to talking about it.”

While a workfare attendant could get by with doing a little cleaning and other work and locking up, Ms. McDowell takes it further. She hails parents and children by name, heartily, as she seems to do everything. She pushes swings, she plays games with toddlers, leaving mothers time to talk with one another. She keeps an eye out for drunks and drug dealers and an ear out for quarrels or accidents.

”She’s really friendly and dedicated,” said Arthur Z. Schwartz, a lawyer and local resident who made the deal with the city. ”People trust her with their children.”

Now the park is a dizzyingly busy meeting place, with hurtling children crossing every which way. The deal seems a rarity, pleasing city and citizens alike. BARBARA STEWART

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