Courtney Callender Playground
Courtney Callender Playground
This playground honors Courtney Callender (1937-1983), New York City’s first African American Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. He graduated from New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School in 1955, attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. for one year, and completed his education at the City College of New York, graduating in 1959.
After college Callender taught at the League School in Brooklyn, a private institution that specializes in the education of emotionally disturbed children. In 1961, Callender married Dr. Ruth Fuller, a psychiatrist. Five years later Callender became the first African American official in Parks under Commissioner Thomas Hoving and Executive Director Henry J. Stern. He established the Community Relations division, which initiated the policy of including the neighborhoods in park decisions. Callender served as community relations officer from 1966 until 1969 when Commissioner August Heckscher appointed him deputy commissioner of Cultural Affairs. He held that position until 1972, organizing many community events, including the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Dr. Fuller and Callender had two children: Hillary Ann in 1970 and Michael Jordan in 1972. After leaving Parks, Callender worked in the Hunter College Theater Department and then he served as the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem from 1975 to 77. In 1978, he became director of programming for the educational division of WNET (Channel 13). Three years later he and his wife separated, when she moved to Denver Colorado. Callender developed cancer, took a leave from WNET, and died in his home on Roosevelt Island in August of 1983. He was 46 years old. After his death, Parks named this playground in his honor.
In 1936, the City purchased a portion of this site from Charles and Mary McClean, and acquired the rest of the property by condemnation that same year. The playground was built across from P.S. 133, in East Harlem, on the corner of Fifth Avenue, between East 130th and 131st Streets, adjacent to Saint Ambrose Church.
Thanks to the initial efforts of Callender in the birth of community involvement in parks, local block associations in came together to form Citizens for Courtney Callender Playground. Determined to reclaim and rehabilitate the playground, the organization collaborated with many pubic and private groups including Parks, the Police Department, Councilmember Bill Perkins, Community Board 10, local churches, and Borough President C. Virginia Fields. The Abyssinian Development Corporation and the Citizens Committee for New York furthered Callender’s citizens groups by providing them with grants and advice.
In 2000, Councilmember Perkins allocated $672,000, and Borough President Fields allocated $225,000 to fund a major renovation of Courtney Callender Playground. Before the project, the playground contained old, worn, and splintering play equipment, a basketball court, and an abandoned, sealed building. The new project, designed by Claire Dudley, removed the old building, rebuilt the basketball court, added bleachers, and brought the installation of colorful, modular play equipment, new chess tables, new fencing, and security lighting. Rare Amur corktrees (Phellodendron amurense) line the entire playground, and huge Trees of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stand within the park providing visitors with shade and intriguing examples of nature’s beauty.