The city's tab for artificial turf has already surpassed the annual expense budget of the Parks Department, which touts artificial turf as a fiscally prudent alternative to hiring maintenance workers. Today, conditions at four fields in Flushing Meadows Corona Park—two artificial turf, two natural—show what happens without maintenance, providing a window onto the decades-long deprivation of city parks. Without upkeep, both grass fields have turned to bare and hardened earth; a thin layer of dirt sits uneasily on top. Bob Sprance, a coach of girls' soccer at Forest Hills High School, picks broken glass off the ground.
All four of these fields are included in the referees' boycott. Still, if forced to choose, Sprance would take the dirt over the artificial turf. "Those fields are just too dangerous," he explains.
He quickly adds that he hates making the choice: "It's like death—the outcome is the same." During practices, managers place orange traffic cones on the artificial turf to warn players of particularly perilous spots.
Sprance walks onto an artificial field between the end of one soccer game and the start of the next. "Look here," he barks, squatting above the carpet. "See that hole by the goal line? You see that patch they put in? Now look at the fold." The fold—a jagged crease at least 2 inches high—extends across the entire width of the field, creating a trap for preoccupied players. "You got three problems right in front of the goal."
A worried look comes across Sprance's face as he watches the adult leagues that occupy the artificial- turf fields on Saturdays and Sundays. "These men have jobs. What if they tear their knees?" he asks. "They're in danger of permanent injury— knees, ankles, heads. They could get concussions. What I don't get is, How can the city let people play on here?"
Another question might be, How did an administration that prides itself on financial acumen dive headlong into a heavy investment in an untested material? And why has it remained steadfastly committed to buying more artificial turf, even when that commitment has meant constantly trying to cover up possible problems, particularly those related to public health?
The answers lie in the story of how New York City became the world's biggest buyer of fake grass.