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Maria Flores started experimenting with tobacco early—really early. On a visit to Kennedy Playground in Shaw last year, the 2-year-old had barely escaped the grasp of her mother’s hand when she grabbed one of the many cigarette butts scattered in the park and placed it in her mouth. Like other novice smokers, she started coughing immediately.

When Maria’s mother, Rosaria, scooped up her daughter moments later, she saw a hypodermic needle lying near Maria in the grass. Empty beer bottles and used condoms lay only a few feet away. Flores, who moved to the District last year from El Salvador, hasn’t been back to the playground since. “Sometimes [the children] play in the street,” Flores says in Spanish, shrugging her shoulders. Her 5-year-old son, who has four Sesame Street Band-Aids on his knees, often pines for monkey bars, but his mother thinks it’s best to stay away from city parks.

Finding usable swings and sandboxes in battered District parks isn’t exactly child’s play. The task is even harder for parents of toddlers, who want separate play areas for their little ones so they can scamper around without being knocked down by teenagers chasing basketballs or Frisbees. District officials have been chanting about attracting young families back into the city, but a walk in the park suggests that those families aren’t flocking to the city for some very basic reasons.

Though the District’s recent turnaround has made it attractive to young, unmarried professionals and older empty-nesters, parents—especially parents of toddlers—say D.C. fails to provides the essential services and facilities that they need. Among those are tot lots—playgrounds designed for youngsters aged 6 to 18 months. Suburbs like Arlington brag about expanding their recreational facilities for young children. The District can’t even maintain the ones it has. That’s one of the reasons why the city ranked 207 out of 219 in a 1997 study on children’s quality of life conducted by Zero Population Growth, a Washington think tank.

“The city really doesn’t give a shit if people stay here when they have children,” comments Leslie Miles, mother of 16-month-old Elena Schwam. Miles, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Logan Circle, has brought up the issue of tot lots with the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks (DCRP). “No one even knew what a tot lot was,” Miles notes.

Like Flores, Miles refuses to set foot in Kennedy or any of the other playgrounds around her neighborhood. So urban convenience goes out the window, and Miles packs Elena into her car to make the 20-minute drive across town to Friendship Recreation Center at 45th and Van Ness Streets NW, known as Turtle Park because of its large stone turtle sculpture.

“It’s a hell of a schlep,” Miles says.

Though the city operates 80 playgrounds, DCRP officials say that no one keeps tabs on how many qualify as tot lots. Diane Quinn, administrator of the department’s policy and grants division, estimates that there are “at least 22″—one at each of the city’s day-care centers.

Quinn says department officials are genuinely interested in making the city a fun and safe place for its littlest citizens, but the problem is cash. “Our problem, to be honest, is financial,” she says. The department receives an annual budget of $25 million, Quinn notes, less than half of what it was allocated six years ago. There is no money in the budget to construct new facilities for toddlers.

But even the play areas the city does provide are unusable in the main. D.C.’s playgrounds are accidents waiting to happen, according to a report released last month by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the U.S. Public Interest Group. In a study of 760 playgrounds nationwide, including 16 in the District, 90 percent had inadequate cushioning for falls—the cause of three out of four playground injuries. More than half had hazards with swing spacing, and two-thirds had climbing equipment higher than the federally recommended 6 feet. Forty percent had jungle gyms with spaces of 3-and-a-half to 9 inches, which allow kids’ bodies—but not their heads—to slide safely through.

“They can literally hang themselves on the playground equipment,” says Mary Ellen Fise, CFA’s product safety director. Her office overlooks Stead Recreation Center in Dupont Circle, which she considers one of D.C.’s better playgrounds, even though, she notes, it needs more wood chips. Fise adds that the jungle gym has gaps and hooks where kids can catch their clothes, and the playground swings are rusty.

The CFA study examined few playgrounds outside of Northwest Washington. “We use volunteers, so we didn’t get into some of the worst neighborhoods,” Fise says apologetically.

DCRP’s Quinn says that the department does employ a team—collectively dubbed “Dr. Playground”—that makes the rounds to inspect D.C. playgrounds. (Last summer, they dismantled the McLean Gardens playground literally overnight, without notifying area residents.) But CFA’s Fise says the city rebuffed her association’s offer to visit every playground in the city and prioritize a to-do list.

Miles says she doesn’t have the time to wait for funding proposals and plans. Miles is trying to convince Logan Circle neighbor Lynda Wright to convert a 600-square-foot unbuildable lot she owns in their neighborhood into a tot lot.

Wright says that if the paperwork for the lot clears up, and someone else donates the equipment and keeps the lot clean and maintained, she will grudgingly agree. “I don’t mean to be cold-blooded, but I could care less about kids,” Wright says. “I have dogs.”

Paul Conlon, who organizes weekend outings for D.C. youngsters as a director of Horton’s Kids, offers another solution.

“Given the choice,” he says, “we go to Virginia.” CP