NYC Parks Department kicks kids’ soccer club off fields

A field of dreams for thousands of young soccer players has turned into a nightmare.

For 15 years, the Elephant Soccer Club of Harlem hosted soccer training clinics for kids at Morningside Park, but now the city Parks Department is giving them the boot.

The nonprofit club is the “heartbeat of the community,” according to soccer coach Adam Norse, who said he witnessed the park rangers tell the Elephant parents on Oct. 3: “The field isn’t for these kids.”

On Saturday, rangers let the kids practice, but issued a summons to their coach afterward for unauthorized use of the field.

Players and their families — some of whom have grown up playing for the club since its inception 15 years ago — are “distraught,” Norse said.

Rangers have said the field can only be used for baseball after it was recently resodded, yet appear to be singling out the Elephants, said club manager Joe Lupton in an email to media outlets.

Other soccer games have been allowed to continue, according to the club leaders — who suspect the move could be retaliation for publicly complaining about screws left on the fields after a Parks-sponsored food festival.

NYC Parks Department kicks kids' soccer club off fields in 'antagonistic' stunt
A handful of screws the club found on the field.Handout

“Ever since we started complaining about the screws on the field, the positive relationship that had existed for 15 years began to get more antagonistic,” Lupton said.

The prohibition has led some club leaders to wonder if the Parks Department is using their kids as pawns in its battle with the neighborhood over the Harlem Eat-Up food festival that takes place for two weeks each summer on the fields.

The event has drawn ire from some in the community who say the wooden slats vendors lay on the grass destroy the ground, according to Lupton.

The club, which caters to kids ages 3 to 18, was “never bothered” by the event itself, Lupton said, but was “deeply disturbed” by “dozens upon dozens” of large 2-inch screws discovered in the grass two years in a row in the days following the festival.

When he and other club members raised their concerns at a community board meeting last year, the Parks Department denied Eat-Up was responsible for the screws and blamed the Elephants for the damaged grass.

“I was flabbergasted to see the Parks Department more intent on defending the Eat-Up organizers and even went on to blame ESCH as being the cause the field being damaged,” Lupton said.

A year later, the Parks Department orphaned the Elephants.

Community leaders, Lupton said, are supportive of the club reclaiming the turf.

NYC Parks Department kicks 'distraught' Harlem kids' soccer club off fields
The Parks Department issues a summons to the club today.
J.C. Rice

NYC Parks Department kicks 'distraught' Harlem kids' soccer club off fields
Joe Lupton, manager of Elephant Soccer Club
J.C. Rice


NYC Parks Department kicks 'distraught' Harlem kids' soccer club off fields
The club plays in Morningside Park today.
J.C. Rice


“The Police Department has always been supportive of ESCH. They recognize the value of giving kids in the neighborhood a good positive outlet for play and interaction,” Lupton said.

The club is scheduled to meet with the Parks Department Oct. 19 about the fields.

The agency couldn’t explain why it suddenly barred the Elephants after so many years of letting them use the field — but said there has been a recent crackdown after a Parks Enforcement Patrol outpost was set up in Morningside Park.

“Throughout the city, we prioritize youth play on our fields. We are working with the Elephant Soccer Club to find them a field built for soccer so their young strikers can run the pitch,” agency spokeswoman Crystal Howard said, noting that the fields are for baseball and softball only.

But Lupton said Rangers seem to let everyone but the Elephants play freely.

“The optics for them don’t look good at all. They come and give us a summons — and all the kids around us have to see the police enforcement people kicking us off — when there is this same group of Upper West Side soccer players and ultimate frisbee players who are there every week and who aren’t bothered by the Rangers at all,” Lupton said, pointing out that they all wear the same kind of cleats that the Elephant players sport.

“The idea that grass can be OK for baseball but not soccer is ludicrous.”