No peace at Newark playground | Carter

Peace Playground was recently cleaned up by Newark and closed. It had become home for addicts and was overrun with garbage, drug addicts and their paraphernalia – drug vials and needles. The owner, La Casa de Don Pedro, a community-based grassroots organization, has been unable to maintain the and has decided to sell the park to the Link Community Charter School, which is adjacent to the park.(Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger)

It’s called the "Peace Playground," but there’s nothing about the name and space to make you think that.

In the past two years, the small park in Newark on Pennsylvania Avenue has become a playground for addicts.

Until last week, when the city closed the park, addicts and the homeless lived there, sleeping on playground equipment and underneath the sliding board.

Tops from drug vials littered the ground in and around the play area. Needles were visible, too. Garbage cans were filled to the brim. Trash was piled high between the fence and the Link Community Charter School next door.

The school’s principal, Kathleen Hester, said at its worst point, the trash was at least 3 feet high. Her middle school students don’t use the park. She can’t take the risk. So, recess is held in the gym and in classrooms.

Residents have complained about conditions at the park on Facebook, and the noise finally reached Newark City Hall.

Even though Newark doesn’t own the property, city sanitation workers showed up last week and cleaned the park, hauling out more than 50 contractor-size bags of garbage.

The park is now closed, and the city says it will fine the owner, La Casa de Don Pedro, a community-based nonprofit corporation in Newark.

The longtime agency has owned a majority of the park for nearly 10 years, having acquired it from El Club del Barrio, a social agency that has a food pantry and provides mental health and addiction services, including for those with HIV.

Carrie Puglisi, director of La Casa’s program and fund development, said the organization has been overwhelmed by the abuse of the park and that it has tried to maintain the space with the school and St. Columba’s Church across the street.

"It is as much a community problem as it is a policing problem,” Puglisi said.

Over the years, she said, La Casa has held clean-up campaigns and organized projects to repair the park, but dumping and illegal activity continued.

Puglisi said La Casa does not have a presence to monitor the park because there’s limited funding for public spaces and even less money to help maintain community-owned parks.

La Casa’s answer is to move on. It plans to transfer ownership of the land to the charter school within 30 days.

Maria Pilar Paradiso, executive director of Link Education Partners (LEP), a nonprofit organization that supports the school, said the group approached La Casa in December about acquiring the property after watching it deteriorate.

"Both organizations are working to move this forward and complete the sale as quickly as possible,” she said.

Paradiso said LEP believes it can maintain the park with regular monitoring and by working with the police department, a relationship it already has with the Fifth Precinct.

No timetable has been set for when the children can use the park. That will happen, Paradiso said, once LEP evaluates the park’s needs and determines its level of safety.

Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said the department will continue to build bridges with the community and enforce the laws to improve quality of life in the area.

Whatever happens, hopefully it will discourage the addicts and make them uncomfortable if they try to congregate in the park.

The students have yet to use the park during the five years the school has been in the neighborhood.

Instead, the fifth- through eighth-grade students played during lunch in front of the building for three years when school officials would block off the street.

But that ended last June, Hester said, after a fatal drive-by shooting near the school and another homicide in July a few blocks away.

"The kids had just come inside,” she said, referring to the first shooting.

Until the park can be used again, it remains closed. Several signs are posted on the fence, but anyone can walk through, unless a new gate with a lock is installed.

Compared to what it had been, there’s a noticeable difference in how it looks.

Science teacher Errol LaGuerre, has a more pleasant view again from his classroom window.

"I can look outside now,” he said.

Hester would love for her students to be able to play outside. It should be part of their development, she said, during a day that starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m.

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Parents want the same thing, but they understand the problem: strangers getting high in plain sight, nodding off on the benches, or lying on the ground, oblivious to what’s around them.

"You don’t want your kids to see that,” said Brenda Daughtry, president of the Link Parent Association.

Recess is in the gym, and while it can be cramped, the students have adjusted.

"I wish I could go out there, but she has to protect us," said Jazz Williams, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, speaking about his principal. "That’s why she won’t let us go outside. But it’s fun inside.”

Across the street, Rafael Santiago grows vegetables and gives them away to the people in the neighborhood. He’s seen the park’s decline and stopped taking his daughter there last year.

"It was good for a lot of years,” he said. "The kids need a place to play.”

Rashon Williams, 55, of East Orange agrees. He understands the situation from both sides. The addicts, he said, are homeless like him, and that’s why they wind up in the park. They don’t want to go to the airport or Penn Station.

For them, the park is safe and quiet.

But it should be that way for the kids, too.

Barry Carter: (973) 836-4925 or bcarter@starledger.com or

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