By Kasey Bubnash, Mid-City Messenger
Every Sunday from May until the end of August, Christy Bradley and nearly 500 other community members descend on the baseball field at Comiskey Park in Mid-City for weekly kickball tournaments.
The group has noticed an ever-increasing problem, Bradley said, with lack of maintenance and prevalence of trash — including broken glass and used syringes.
Kickball of Crescent City has been renting the Comiskey field on Norman Francis Parkway and Baudin Street for years. At around 7 a.m. each game day, Bradley said a few league members head to the fields to set up.
“We try to do our best to pick up whatever is out there,” she said, “even if it’s not ours.”
If there’s something particularly hazardous on the field or playground, Bradley said, organizers put cones around it to keep players and their children away from the area.
The adult league consists of 18 co-ed teams of around 25 players per team. “We don’t really have a lot of options in the city for how big of a group we are, so we just kind of take it on the chin,” she said. “I just wish in general that they would do better maintenance on these fields.”
Bradley isn’t the only one who’s noticed the trash and late-night activity at Comiskey Park. In a Sept. 20 post on a Mid-City Facebook group, residents complained about the apparently declining state of the park, and posted photos of used syringes, cigarette butts and emptied liquor bottles littering the playground. Other photos showed discarded clothing and several blankets strewn over the colorful slides and jungle gym.
While city officials say they’ve responded to the most recent complaints and sent out staff to clean up the park, community members say more needs to be done to resolve the park’s recurring problems.
In a written Oct. 1 statement, New Orleans Recreation Development (NORD) Commission CEO Larry Barabino Jr. said NORD staff launched cleanup efforts as soon as it received complaints about trash and a possible homeless encampment at Comiskey Park following Hurricane Ida.
The NORD maintenance staff immediately conducted a site visit and cleaned up the trash and debris surrounding the play structure, he said.
In addition to previously scheduled bi-weekly cleanings conducted by maintenance staff, NORD also assigned a site facilitator to manage the playground Monday through Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. moving forward in an effort to monitor activity at the playground.
“NORD does not provide security patrols at playgrounds or play spots,” Barabino wrote, “as staff has been instructed to contact NOPD immediately to report any suspicious onsite activities.”
District B City Councilman Jay H. Banks said his office also helped launch cleanup efforts as soon as it received complaints about trash and possible homeless encampments at Comiskey Park in late September. Banks said he hasn’t heard such complaints about that particular park until now.
“I don’t know how long it’s been going on,” Banks said. “When we found out, we responded.”
In an interview on Sept. 24, Banks said members of the NORD Commission, which oversees operations and maintenance of Comiskey Park, had already sent employees to assess damage and remove trash from the field and playground.
The New Orleans Health Department and Unity of Greater New Orleans also visited the park to contact and offer services to anyone who may have been using the park’s play structures or other facilities for shelter, officials said. Some of those who were contacted took advantage of the services offered. Others left the area, Banks said.
NORD staff, Barabino wrote, had immediately informed the Health Department and Unity to request a site visit to assess and assist any homeless individuals in the park, following established procedure.
“They were asked to remove themselves and their belongings so the children could use the park,” Banks said. “The value of the park is, children are going to get recreation. So I’m grateful that there wasn’t any escalation of anything, but they did vacate and, hopefully, they or another group won’t come back. And if they do, we’ll address it again.”
Unfortunately, Banks said, homelessness is a nationwide issue that won’t be resolved immediately or through policing alone. But New Orleans is making strides to address the issue, he said, through the “low barrier shelter” that opened in 2018 and efforts to provide mental health and addiction services to those experiencing homelessness in addition to aiding with shelter and housing.
In the Mid-City Facebook group, several community members tossed around the idea of pushing for a safe syringe exchange program or disposal site near Comiskey Park to ease concerns about at least the most hazardous materials. Banks said if such a program was possible, he would likely support it.
Crescent Care operates a Syringe Access Program that involves addiction treatment referrals, clean needle exchanges and a syringe disposal box located outside Crescent Care’s St. Roch building.
Joe Hui, director of communications at Crescent Care, wrote in an email to the NOLA Messenger that the cost of syringe disposal is incredibly high — Crescent Care spends roughly $33,000 a year on the service — because sharps have to incinerated to prevent the spread of blood-borne pathogens.
Though Hui said Crescent Care would like to put a sharps disposal box outside its Mid-City building, located just around the corner from Comiskey Park, the healthcare provider doesn’t own that building and does not have the funding to support another disposal site.
Residents, he said, can always call 311 to report discarded syringes and other issues.
Paul Steiner, who was the secretary of the Comiskey Park booster club in 2017, said, although the situation could have changed since then, a lot of work maintaining the park and running athletic programs was left up to volunteers.
City employees came by regularly to mow the grass, empty trash bins, and unlock and lock the gates each day, Steiner said, but volunteers often took care of the more in-depth maintenance. They would sometimes clean the bathrooms or patch up peeling paint on the concession stands.
“It seemed like the city should have had more involvement with that,” he said.
Shelly Shephard just recently moved into a house that sits directly across the street from Comiskey Park. She takes her dogs to run around in the batting cages every day, and within the past few months she’s noticed a lot of drug and alcohol paraphernalia littering the playground and fields.
People often hang around inside the park at night, she said, despite the fences surrounding the park and gates that are supposed to be locked every night. It’s getting to the point that “you just kind of don’t want to bring your kids there,” Shephard said.
Though her kids are both older, her 17-year-old isn’t allowed to go to the park. She’d like to see more security in the area, such as taller fences, security cameras or semi-regular police patrols, just something to keep people out at night.
“But if they don’t get a grip on it now they’re going to end up losing a good park,” she said.
Reporter Kasey Bubnash can be reached at email@example.com.