by Eli Tan
On an overcast Thursday afternoon in December, groups of local kids gather to play pickup soccer on Brighton Playfield, located in the heart of South Seattle next to Aki Kurose Middle School. It has rained all week, which in past years would mean that the field’s overgrown and misshapen grass surface would be unplayable. But now, after the park’s recently completed remodel, the kids play on artificial field turf without issue.
Suffused with colored lines marked for soccer, baseball, football, and ultimate frisbee, the dazzling green surface is a bit jarring for anyone used to the previously natural and blended landscape. Newly paved concrete walkways have replaced the mudded paths. Fences line the exterior of the field at a proper height.
The most important feature of the renovation, however, may not be the flatness of the leveled ground or softness of the state-of-the-art field turf. It’s the lights.
Surrounding the perimeter of the field are newly installed LED lights that are brighter and more functional than the previous fixtures. The field’s hours of use are no longer dictated by hours of daylight, which is especially significant in the winter months. The lights also add an element of safety to the field in an area that can otherwise be dangerous when it gets dark.
“The park looks so amazing now,” says Aiden, a local middle schooler and Hillman City resident. “In the summer I came here almost every day to skateboard. My friends like to play on the new turf, but my favorite part is the new paths. They are finally smooth enough to ride on.”
The renovation also benefits more than just the neighborhood’s youth — plenty of adults walk the upper track or do yoga on the sidelines.
Historically speaking, the hotbeds for recreation in South Seattle have always been next to the area’s two largest middle schools — Asa Mercer and Aki Kurose. In a neighborhood where Somali, Vietnamese, and Tagalog are all spoken as commonly as English, activities like soccer and basketball persist as some of the community’s shared languages.
While financial hardship brought by the pandemic worsens the increasingly desperate gap of the city’s economic and educational inequality, recreation serves as a temporary break from the burden of uncertainty, especially for residents of South Seattle who have been hit harder than members of northern neighborhoods. In a time when the city’s sense of community is under attack as much as the health care system or the livelihoods of small business owners, the field is a refuge for community to once again exist like normal.
In recent years, Seattle’s public parks have been at the forefront of the city’s conflicts with racial equity and the ongoing housing crisis. Whether it’s the future of the city’s spacious golf courses or the viability of homeless encampments downtown, public parks continue to prove their importance to various communities around Seattle in complicated fashion.
South Seattle parks like Brighton Playfield aren’t often the center of attention like their Capitol Hill counterparts, but they provide an immense value to the community’s surrounding members in more traditional ways, especially for younger demographics.
Space for recreation in Seattle is as much an issue of equity as affordable housing or public transportation. For years, the area has exhausted scheduling at fields like Genesee Park, leaving many without access to play sports on their own time, including members of immigrant communities who don’t often sign up for official leagues or play on school teams.
What makes the renovation of Brighton Playfield significant goes beyond the simple fact that it’s an overdue improvement of a heavily used resource. Its renovation sends a message to a community that has long played on slanted grass lit by the headlights of adjacent parked cars that they are seen by a city that has constantly told them otherwise.
In South Seattle, equity is often thought of in the context of economic development or public housing. But for the area’s community, sometimes the most impactful changes come from relatively small improvements, like lights to play soccer at night or fences for little league fields.
It’s minor changes like these ones that directly improve people’s quality of life. While the City spends millions of dollars each year often trying to solve what seems like the impossible, overlooked is the importance of recreation for everyday people.
A basketball net costs $20, and any person who has shot hoops without one can attest that its value exceeds that amount. The hardest part of putting up a new basketball net is not buying it at the store. It’s taking the time to climb the ladder, leading each strand of net through its correct ring, and climbing back down. Now more than ever, the kids of South Seattle need their city to be willing to climb the ladder — and not just on the basketball court.
Obviously, upgrades to recreation only go so far in reviving areas of South Seattle that are in need, with many residents still facing a surfeit of issues to tackle in the coming year. But in the meantime, while the City endeavors improvements through economic and bureaucratic means, a new generation will grow up playing soccer on Brighton Playfield with a surface as luxurious as their friends in Madison Valley and maybe even themselves go on to make the transformational changes needed in their community.
Eli Tan is South Seattle-born journalist and writer who currently attends St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He’s interested in writing about sports, social issues, and the stories of everyday people. You can follow his writing and find the rest of his work on www.elitanwriting.com.
Featured Image: The sun sets on Brighton Playfield’s newly renovated turf surface. (Photo: Eli Tan)