The playground was intended as a safe haven and respite for young children in a hardscrabble neighborhood, but a nearby deli attracts unsavory visitors.
Gang members allegedly smoke pot, engage in sex and gamble. They also sell drugs, intimidate people in the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood and refuse to leave when asked.
Following the recent crackdown on deli merchants trafficking in stolen goods, Marlies A. Wesolowski called The Buffalo News to paint this ugly picture and blame the deli, which had been shut but was allowed to reopen.
"The playground is for children 6 to 12 years of age, and they don't need to be witnesses to this kind of activity. These 20-something young people congregate in the playground and on my front steps at the community center. I ask them to leave, and they refuse," said Wesolowski, executive director of the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center. "They play craps in the playground, have sex, and I've actually seen drug deals go down. We had a young man bragging that he just sold a dime bag for $8."
Last month, though, she thought the problems were gone in her neighborhood.
A series of raids by a task force of law enforcement officials headed by Buffalo police closed down the deli at 1069 Broadway, as well as many more like it throughout the city, for allegedly selling stolen goods they had purchased from thieves looking to make fast money to support their drug addictions.
"The store was shut down about a week. I will tell you, all of the nonsense disappeared. It was like heaven. There was no trash, no 20-somethings, and the playground was free and clear for parents and kids to use," Wesolowski said.
The respite was short-lived. The Broadway Mart, next door to the playground, and others obtained a court order allowing them to reopen while criminal charges and other actions against them and their workers are pending.
"I'm writing a letter to State Supreme Court Justice Timothy J. Walker asking him why he would allow a deli to reopen that doesn't even have a license to operate," Wesolowski said.
Police officials confirmed that the deli lacked a city permit to operate when it was shut down. They also say that there are about 435 delis in the city and that most of them operate legally.
Wesolowski, who applauded the raids, is not alone in her frustration with the judge.
Residents and officials in other parts of the city have raised similar complaints against Walker, wondering why he would allow businesses that attract troublemakers to remain open.
Telephone calls to the judge by The News on Thursday were not returned.
Yet not everyone is displeased with the judge.
Hassan Abdulah, a Broadway Mart worker, says that blaming the delis for problems with gangs is misguided.
"I don't even know if they are gangs. We're outside all the time telling them, 'Move, move.' They are gone now. We don't know what they do. We have no control over their business. We stay out of their business," Abdulah said.
Wesolowski disagrees that the gangs are gone but does not dispute that deli workers in general mind their own business.
"That's true because they don't want to be robbed," she said.
Workers at other delis along Broadway, stretching from the 1000 to the 1300 block, say that they operate in a sometimes dangerous environment. "I've had a gun shoved in my face by a robber," a female deli worker said, her eyes widening at the recollection.
As for young people congregating in front of delis, Marquis Jones, 20, offered insights as he stood in front of the Broadway Mart earlier this week.
"I come here to chill. I do understand where is coming from, but a lot of people don't understand what is going on with why some people sell drugs. They sell because they have to for the money. They might not have parents, or their parents might be fiends, crackheads," Jones said, adding that he is not a gang member.
"You would be surprised how many kids are out here by themselves."
Wesolowski, who listened in on Jones' comments to The News, wasn't buying the explanation.
She displayed a plastic baggie containing a brass slug from one of the bullets fired a few weeks ago in a drive-by shooting that wounded three people. The slug, she said, was dug out of a wooden door frame on the Playter Street side of the community center. Brick was also pockmarked from the shooting.
"Just the other day, there was a teenage girl having sex on the slide in the playground while others were watching. It's all because the store is a magnet for this kind of activity," Wesolowski said. "I'm waiting for the detective to come by and collect the bullet."
Five years ago, the playground replaced two vacant lots and was intended to improve the neighborhood. Local corporations, city officials and the United Way contributed about $300,000 and free labor to make it happen, planting trees and shrubs, and installing cheerfully painted play equipment.
Now, Wesolowski said, she serves as a guard to keep it safe.
"I don't really want to go public. It's negative publicity," she said. "But if I don't go public, at some point, kids are going to get hurt. The 6- to 12-year-olds who use the playground are going to get caught up in some nonsense."