Dr. Playground: The Story Behind the Vaguely Sinister Van Roaming Prospect Park

Dr. Playground

The other day I was running around Prospect Park. Generally speaking, when that happens, I don’t see anything unexpected. Runners, strollers, BBQers, cyclists in elaborate spandex, dogs, hand-holders. Leisurely things. Nothing scary. But then, I saw a van. 

This jungle green work van read, “Dr. Playground.” As a concept, it’s cute. Doctors don’t work on playgrounds! They work on people. But they do fix things. So why shouldn’t there be a doctor to fix playgrounds? Cute.

But the van was not cute; it was borderline terrifying. Not the kind of van you’d want idling around children, for whom playgrounds are made. Instead of a doctor’s kit, for example, which would have continued the premise of the joke that doctors normally work on people, there is a very large and jagged saw. Instead of a plexor, there is a big hammer. Technically, there is also a stethoscope, but its prominence (the ‘Y’ in “playground”) compared to the wrench, the drill, and the tape measure that bears an unfortunate resemblance to a lightning bolt, is lost.

Underneath it reads: “This vehicle was funded by Council Member Domenic M. Recchia, Jr.”

At home I scoured the Internet; now ex-councilman Recchia suffered a fairly crushing loss last November for a seat in the congressional district that covers all of Staten Island and a small sliver of Brooklyn—crushing because it was at the hands of incumbent Michael Grimm, who, at the time, was under a 20-count federal indictment and known to have threatened to throw a reporter off of a balcony. Meanwhile, a few years prior, Recchia had supported the purchase of Coney Island amusement land to a large developer; the purchase was made and that same developer would later donate thousands to Recchia’s congressional campaign.

The van, maybe, was a token “I still care about public amusement despite my association with large land developers.” After Recchia’s congressional loss, he disappeared (from the Internet, anyway). His Twitter feed stopped the day of the election. I couldn’t find a new contact for him, so couldn’t ask him about the creepy van.

But then, a very late bell: City Parks!

I wrote to the press office: A friendly media representative got back to me very quickly. The information was not empty, but general.

About twenty years ago, the Dr. Playground program was initiated. That program “provided a fully equipped van (generators, power tools, spare parts and other material) and a skilled maintenance worker to make repairs in the park and playgrounds of a particular district or sector.” At some point, the program went citywide, and was credited for helping to improve playground ratings across the city.

It sounded pretty clear. But there was an addendum. The program is no longer “formal,” there are just vans that still operate “in the same manner.”

Whatever that informal manner was, it was likely the manner that allowed ex-councilman Recchia to fund one of them. I pressed the Parks rep for more, wanting to know–above all and desperately–who was responsible for the design of the van, how Recchia got his name on one, and if there were more. But then the friendly media rep went away, too.

I decided to make one more trip to find an actual playground doctor. Get the details straight from the source. Conveniently, I found one. I spotted the van, and then went to talk to the man operating it, who was talking to two officers sitting in a patrol car.

“I’ve been trying to figure out what the Dr. Playground van does.” I said, and decided to say it wasn’t because it looked creepy but because it looked… funny.

“I don’t look funny to you, do I?” was his response with a jolly smile.

He did not. He was tall and strong and wore a green Parks shirt and told me that his job was just to make sure everything was cool on the playgrounds. There are, according to the friendly doctor, a total of four vans, and each is funded by a different party—his van is the only one funded by Recchia. As far as he knew, the vans only exist in Prospect Park.

The sun was shining and the guy was smiling and while he talked to me there were two policemen approximately two feet away. The van suddenly looked less alarming. Like it maybe even had a solid sense of humor—even if it could potentially terrorize its target audience, kids.

In the end, this post is not a public service announcement to Beware the Van, but to try to allay the mild terror you might feel if you run into one. Plus, the doctor has a great bedside manner. Next time you see him, you can say hello.   

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1 COMMENT

  1. I just saw this van on Victory Blvd in Staten Island (Right across from Silver Lake Park) this morning. Quick Google search led me to your article, strangely posted the same day. Thanks for the info!

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