The neighborhood parents call it the Tower of Death. It is a 12-foot-tall cone, fashioned from metal bars and covered with several layers of chipping paint, and it looms over a tiny Algiers Point toddler park at the corner of Verret and Pelican streets. There is no protective surfacing under the Tower -- nor under the park's swings or the old metal slide.

On this recent afternoon, mothers have placed a square of plywood over the waterlogged gully at the bottom of the slide to protect the 2-year-olds zooming down. When one toddler slips from the top of the ladder and plops into the mud below, her mother rushes over to make sure she was OK. Two other children splash happily in puddles under the swing set.

The park, officially titled Kiwanis Playground but locally known as Confetti Park after the design on its fence, is owned and maintained by the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD). Like many of New Orleans' 100-plus public playgrounds, Confetti Park is desperately in need of renovation. According to a recently released national report on playground safety by the US Public Interest Research Group (US-PIRG) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), each of the 18 play areas surveyed in New Orleans contained unsafe conditions.

Among the most obvious hazards are a lack of protective surfacing under climbing equipment and swings, climbers that are too high, and poorly placed equipment that can lead to dangerous falls or swing collisions. Less noticeable -- but equally troubling -- are railings that can trap a child's head and cause suffocation, hooks or hardware that can become entangled in clothing, and possible toxic hazards like pressure-treated wood and chipping paint.

Local parents confirm that too many neighborhood parks offer a shabby, depressing play environment for the city's children. But according to the US-PIRG/CFA report, this city is not alone in its playground woes. Even in locales without the budget troubles of New Orleans, American children's public play spaces have been shamefully neglected for the past 20 years.

"The big problem is that right now there are no national playground safety guidelines," says Johanna Neumann, campaign director for US-PIRG in Louisiana, who conducted the local survey with her staff. "The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has enacted voluntary guidelines, but it's important that state and local governments step in where the federal government has left off."

The Consumer Federation of America has drafted a model law on playground safety, which has been adopted by a few states and cities. Research shows that state and city legislation can be effective in reducing playground risk: according to the US-PIRG/CFA report, a 1996 law passed in North Carolina requiring all new playgrounds to conform to CPSC guidelines led to a 22-percent decrease in playground injuries in the state's childcare centers.

"To me, the most troubling aspect is the lack of protective surfacing on almost all playgrounds," says Neumann, leading a recent walk through the Fleur de Lis playground in Lakeview. "If a child were to fall, they would risk serious injury." Neumann points out ancient swings and monkey bars with only bare earth and exposed tree roots beneath them. Other hazards: a newer-looking climber with numerous places for head entrapment; tot swings alongside regular swings, creating a collision risk; and a pivot point on the swings that's much higher than the recommended 8 feet, which allows kids to soar but also places them at greater risk of injury.

Dr. Keith Perrin, the chairman of the statewide advocacy group Louisiana Safe Kids, believes that the US-PIRG/CFA report might actually understate the dangers of local playgrounds. As Perrin sees it, even more stringent safety standards could be imposed than those suggested by the study. For example, swings made of a rigid, but yielding material and hung from enclosed straps are safer than the usual pliable plastic flaps suspended from chain links. "It's a money issue," Perrin says. "To build an extremely safe playground is extremely expensive. NORD is trying, but the survey only touches the tip of the problems."

Perrin says he often sees playground injuries in his pediatric practice. Such injuries have doubled since the early '80s, he adds, because of the deteriorating condition of playgrounds. He describes the results of such deterioration: "Usually bumps and bruises, cuts and scrapes, some broken bones. There isn't a lot of mortality -- only about 15 per year nationally. Eye injuries and head injuries are the most significant. Bumps and bruises you can get beyond. Head injuries you can't."

But Perrin also points out another playground consideration: fun. The entire playground environment has lately been reinvented with the problem of safety -- and, Perrin acknowledges, liability -- in mind. Older equipment that many parents and children once considered essential to fun -- merry-go-rounds, seesaws -- is now deemed too dangerous, both by safety advocates and legal advisers. Balancing fun, safety and liability can be tricky.

"There have been lawsuits if a child is injured on a playground," Perrin says. "Whenever you talk about safety and fun -- whether it's baseball, swimming -- you have to accept risk. That allows you to have some measure of fun. But none of it comes without risk. I think swings will stay, slides will stay, modified monkey bar systems will stay."

Along with Perrin, NORD director Charlene Braud joined a recent US-PIRG tour of the safety hazards of Uptown's Danneel Playspot. Braud applauds the publicity that the US-PIRG study has brought to her agency's problems. "People need to be aware that we can't make a change overnight with the budget that we have," she cautions. "We all want safe playgrounds for our kids."

New Orleans enjoys a much higher number of play areas than many cities, Braud says, but has a much smaller budget to maintain them. "In the past eight years, the city has done a lot to try to upgrade some of the playground equipment. But as a whole they need lots of renovation -- not just equipment. They've been neglected for a very long time."

In Braud's first year on the job, NORD has made capital improvements such as basketball court renovation, and has performed what she calls "Band-Aid measures" like painting and swing repair. The city agency is limited by what Braud calls "a shoestring budget."

The City of New Orleans Capital Improvement Program has budgeted $8,220,000 for NORD over the next five years. The department requested $1 million for new playground equipment, but received only $400,000. NORD has also requested more than $25 million for capital improvements to various playgrounds, pools, gyms and community centers, and has been granted less than $5 million. Other citywide playground improvements already included in the five-year budget, like shelter roofing, painting, playground lighting, and fencing, will cost more than $1 million. But of the $699,930 NORD requested for general NORD Playspot repairs in the next five years, the city has budgeted nothing.

The current situation didn't come about overnight, Braud says. "There was a time in the '80s when NORD took a big budget hit. They lost a lot of personnel and capital funding. That's almost 20 years of not enough upkeep and training in playground safety." But she is optimistic, pointing out that NORD has finally begun to schedule the total renovation of the city's playgrounds. "The money has come in and we are ready to spit out seven or eight of them this year," she says, adding that renovations will include landscaping, lighting, benches, water fountains and bike racks, as well as new play structures and sports fields.

Braud is sending two NORD employees to the National Playground Safety Institute to ensure that new playgrounds will conform to current safety standards. She is also pursuing ideas for nontraditional playgrounds, like skate parks and "sprayground" water parks. All of the renovated playgrounds will conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act's guidelines for wheelchair access.

Most of the planning and fundraising for the upcoming playground overhaul will be done by the nonprofit group Friends of NORD, which has raised about $3.5 million for NORD since it was founded by local business executives in 1994. In 2000 -- her second year in the position -- Friends of NORD executive director Nancy Broadhurst started work on a program called Project Playground, a plan to renovate 75 of the city's public play areas. Project Playground's first five-year plan proposes to complete 31 playgrounds by 2006 at a cost of about $14 million -- the group has raised $1 million so far.

Each playground will cost between $180,000 and $500,000, and NORD will contribute $20,000 to each site from city bond funds. The bulk of the money will come from individual and corporate contributions, state financing from programs like the Louisiana Stadium Exposition District Fund (LSED), and federal grants such as the National Park Service Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery Program for parks in low-income areas. Friends of NORD also hopes to create an endowment to supplement NORD's maintenance budget for the new playgrounds.

Many local parents and neighborhood activists are grateful for the help. "Friends of NORD has been a godsend," says Bari Landry, who sits on the board of the Lakeview Civic Association and is involved in planning the redesign of Fleur de Lis Playground and McKay Playspot. "They rely on neighborhood groups to spearhead the project. Our job is to bring in representatives from the neighborhood, schools and churches to discuss how the playground is used, how they want to see it used. In the meantime, Friends of NORD is raising funds for what needs to be done."

Broadmoor Playspot, the first park on the five-year plan, is currently under construction. The small playground at the meeting point of Napoleon Avenue and Broad Street is scheduled to be completed in early August. Dr. Anne Hallock, president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, says the park was "miserably deteriorated"; she praises Friends of NORD's work, saying that the foundation had come to her group repeatedly for advice and feedback.

"Nancy Broadhurst is hardworking, meticulous and dedicated," she says. "It took a while to get the funding together, because the price kept going up and up. Mitch Landrieu, Diana Bajoie and Renee Gill Pratt all were instrumental in finding funds."

Yet despite these initial successes, some local playground activists express frustration at both NORD and Friends of NORD. All sides agree that playgrounds are in disrepair, and are pleased that the US-PIRG report has brought attention to the issue. But for some neighborhood groups, the point of contention is: What is the best way to fix the parks? The city, on the other hand, faces the question of how much latitude to give neighborhood groups in repairing these parks.

In the years before Project Playground got underway, several local neighborhood groups took matters into their own hands to rescue dilapidated and dangerous playgrounds. Five years ago, a group of new parents in Mid-City formed a group called Earthlings, which raised enough money in three years to rebuild the burned-out Desmare Playground on Esplanade Avenue. In 1999, community activists renovated Norman Playground in Algiers. The Lakeview Booster Club will soon install new equipment in Delgado Playground, for which it raised about $30,000. And Algiers Point residents have banded together in a group called Confetti Kids Inc. to collect funds for new play structures in Confetti Park.

J'Annine Sullivan, one of the original Earthlings, says that her group achieved its goals largely through grassroots organizing. "A bunch of us had babies in the neighborhood, and we'd go by Desmare and it was a burned-down shelter, a safety hazard. There was no place for us to play." She says then-NORD director Vic Richards agreed to match the funds that Earthlings raised, and Friends of NORD offered to act as the group's fiscal agent to save them the trouble of forming a nonprofit organization.

Earthlings raised $45,000 with fundraising events like a "little Jazz Fest," which featured Coco Robichaux, the Iguanas, and other local musicians, and an LSED grant written with State Sen. Lambert Boissiere and Rep. Mitch Landrieu. Desmare is now one of the spiffier playgrounds in the city. "It is used; it's a diverse group," says Sullivan. "That was our goal. We accomplished it, and it was a hard road."

After finishing Desmare, Earthlings teamed up with the Lakeview Booster Club in 2000 and 2001 to plan two "Picnic in the Park" fundraisers for Delgado Playground. But Booster Club President Tony Bencsek says that $20,000 promised by the city has never materialized. "Obstacles kept arising," he says. "If I waited for NORD to give the $20,000 they promised under Vic Richards -- I was getting a little frustrated. In February 2002, the city said yes, we know we owe you $20,000, but we don't have it."

NORD agreed to allow the Boosters to do their own fundraising for Delgado; Bencsek's group pounded the pavement for a year. Perhaps owing to the fact that Delgado Playground is located in one of the city's more affluent neighborhoods, the playground will be completed this month.

In early 1999, Renee Melchiode was expecting her third child and upset that her neighborhood park, Norman Playground in Algiers, was in deplorable condition. "It was totally dilapidated," she says. "There was a giant field that was never mowed, and there were two slides that you'd slide down into a red ant pile." Melchiode says she called NORD and "screamed and yelled" at Vic Richards, who reportedly told her that if she could raise the money, she could have carte blanche to renovate the park.

Like Earthlings, Melchiode's group partnered with Friends of NORD to take advantage of its nonprofit status. But she says her group of mothers raised almost all of the $117,000 they needed on their own, with help from Richards, City Councilman Troy Carter, and State Rep. Jackie Clarkson. The group obtained $3,000 from Friends of NORD, she says. But the most important factor in reaching her goals, Melchiode says, was strong support from the Algiers community. From start to finish, it took Melchiode's group 10 months to renovate Norman Playground, which was finished in September 2000.

"Whenever I got discouraged, someone would come up with the name of a potential donor," Melchiode says. "It was a joint effort in the community."

Meanwhile, the Algiers Point community is still trying to fix up its hazardous playground. Kristin Gisleson-Palmer, co-president of Confetti Kids Inc., says her group approached NORD at the end of 2000 to ask for new play equipment for the run-down Confetti Park. They were told that no money was available, but interim director Ann Macdonald encouraged Gisleson-Palmer to investigate KaBOOM!, a nonprofit organization that helps grassroots groups plan and build new playgrounds using volunteer labor from the community. Macdonald -- who declined comment for this story -- had recently completed the KaBOOM! installation of a new playground in Pontchartrain Park, using "community build" volunteers from Home Depot and NORD to assemble the equipment in less than a day. KaBOOM!, which is based in Chicago, has architects on staff, and designed the Pontchartrain Park play structures free of charge, based on pictures and ideas sent in by neighborhood children.

"NORD was very nice about it," Gisleson-Palmer says. "I went to the KaBOOM! convention in Chicago. At the time, Ann Macdonald promised $20,000 of NORD money to our project, with $10,000 to go to Confetti and $10,000 to Delcazel playground (a nearby park which, at the time, was not on the NORD renovation list). We attached ourselves to an existing nonprofit, Old Algiers Main Street, and had our first gala fundraiser, Swing for Swings, in August 2001. We netted $18,000. Then we wrote an Algiers Economic Development Foundation (AEDF) grant for $15,000 to go for the joint renovation of Confetti and Delcazel."

Since then, that $15,000 grant and its stated purpose has been the subject of debate. "At a meeting last November," Gisleson-Palmer says, "Friends of NORD told us that it would be too expensive for them to renovate both Confetti and Delcazel, and that they wanted all the money which had been raised -- the AEDF grant, the $20,000 from NORD, and the $25,000 we had raised with Swing for Swings and other fundraisers -- to all go to Delcazel."

The check from AEDF -- made out to Friends of NORD -- bears a notation that suggests that the funds are earmarked for Delcazel. But AEDF executive director Belinda Littlewood calls that notation an "error," and says that the grant was always intended to be used for Delcazel and Confetti parks. "It was supposed to go to both parks," Littlewood says. "Once we give money to Friends of NORD, they're the fiduciary, but we intended for the money to be given to both parks. If something has occurred between Confetti Kids and Friends of NORD, I am not aware of it."

Confetti and Delcazel parks sit within blocks of each other. Confetti tends to be used by toddlers; Delcazel is popular with older kids. Broadhurst maintains that the AEDF grant was never intended to be used for Confetti Park, and that, in addition, Friends of NORD had been counting on some of the Swing for Swings funds for Delcazel.

Confetti Kids surrendered its claim to the AEDF and NORD funds last fall, but kept its Swing for Swings money. The group has since incorporated as a nonprofit organization with 70 member families, and is still working to buy new playground equipment. Confetti Kids Inc. remains actively involved in Friends of NORD's planning for Delcazel Playground.

Nancy Broadhurst describes the Confetti Kids situation as an unfortunate mix-up related to the changing leadership at NORD. "There was no animosity," she stresses. "You can't ask for a better group to work with. But had they not pulled out their money we probably would have started work on Delcazel last spring."

The KaBOOM! community build process used in Pontchartrain Park, Confetti Kids co-president Gisleson-Palmer says, would have enabled her group to complete Confetti Park by now, even with the reduced funding. But according to NORD director Braud, liability issues prevent NORD from continuing to allow community builds. This means Confetti Kids will have to spend $6,500 on professional installation in addition to purchasing the equipment. Gisleson-Palmer, who directed Operation Comeback's Christmas in October volunteer home renovation program from 1993 to 1998, is frustrated with NORD's policy.

"I think it is ludicrous," she says. "I used to have 4,000 volunteers working on 75 houses a year. That's the future -- using volunteer labor to leverage the cost. When I went to Chicago for the KaBOOM! conference I helped build a playground -- anyone can do it. Hundreds of communities across the country are doing this. For New Orleans not to be [doing likewise] is very shortsighted."

Gisleson-Palmer also expresses concern that NORD play areas are all starting to look alike, a problem she says could be solved by using the community build method to design and execute each park individually.

"We want a playground that is reflective of our community and inspiring to our children," she says. "Parents like to take their kids to different parks for different play experiences. If we have every playground in New Orleans green and tan, or by one manufacturer, that's not what our kids need."

But some uniformity allows for greater efficiency and economy, says NORD director Braud. "We have gone to a model -- all of our playgrounds will have interchangeable parts, and we'll have replacement pieces stockpiled," she says. "The play structures are modular, but they don't all look alike."

Both Gisleson-Palmer and the Booster Club's Tony Bencsek say that community builds can save thousands of dollars for installation, along with other expenses. "Confetti Kids Inc. put our benches in for free by doing the work ourselves," Gisleson-Palmer says. "The materials were donated by Bollinger Shipyards, and we hired the same local artist who created the confetti fence, Steve Kline, to make them."

Although the equipment at Delgado Playground will be professionally installed, Bencsek says, he was able to choose his own contractor since he was using private funds. "I saved $10,000 by not going to bid," he says. "I was able to shop around on my own. I spent a couple of months negotiating. Because of that I was able to go to a more expensive type of rubber surfacing, not the cheaper one NORD said we could use, and a 13-item playground instead of a seven-item playground."

Nonetheless, Broadhurst says, all playground groups in New Orleans must now go through Friends of NORD. The nonprofit group maintains an open-door policy for neighborhood organizations, but centralizing playground improvements will make it easier to raise funds for all parks, Broadhurst says. "We welcome any and all groups to work with us. When a neighborhood is interested in becoming involved, they work through our foundation. This is what donors want to see. We are trying to establish a coordinated effort."

That effort includes the group's premiere effort under Project Playground, Broadmoor Playspot, currently on schedule to be unveiled next month. The small playground at the meeting point of Napoleon Avenue and Broad Street will include swings, slides, a climbing structure, benches, water fountains, bicycle racks, trash receptacles and a wrought iron fence. It will also feature a garden spot tended by Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. Next on the Project Playground list for 2002: Lake Vista, Wisner, Soraparu, Delcazel, Lemann I, F.P. Jackson, and Roffignac.

Future projects depend in part on neighborhood involvement, says Broadhurst. If a motivated group wants to renovate a playground that is not on the Project Playground list, her group will immediately put it in their five-year plan. As an example, she points to the site of the US-PIRG media tour of playground hazards -- which is now scheduled for work in 2003.

"Danneel Park was not on the list for next year," Broadhurst says. "It got involved because we had a motivated group that wanted to help -- you never turn down help."