On a narrow peninsula of asphalt in lower Manhattan, a children's playground has gone up in a spot where vagrants once gathered of an evening, shouting at passers-by and huddling around cosy bonfires they had set in empty oil drums. No more. Now, a faux-Parisian, wrought-iron fence wraps round a merry island of acid-green and sulphur-yellow monkey bars. Decorative paving tiles replace Giacometti- esque hulks of rusted scrap metal and torn netting, and wee bairns can be seen at all hours scrambling across miniature stairs and ladders, or bobbing about on brightly painted rocking frogs and ponies.

On a recent Sunday, one such bairn was spotted whipping back and forth on the red and brown pony like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. His gold necklace read "Emilio," and a look of childish bliss sweetly spread across his moustached lip. He looked about 15, but you never know - children are precocious in this town.

At a cafe by the playground, young parents and their chums sipped iced- coffee, tossing ping-pong balls into the traffic from time to time to keep their rompered infants occupied. A shaven-headed Asian woman in overalls crouched on the sidewalk to grin at her friend's baby. "Hey Sophie," she prattled, "Do you know where my 'tushie' is?" When Sophie appeared baffled by the anatomy lesson, the woman grinned and flicked her rump. "Here it is!" she crowed. "Now, where's yours?" As Sophie smiled uncertainly, then hit on it, a young couple, he with a goatee, she with a pierced chin, beamed with parental pride.

This spring, many such touching tableaux have been recreated across Manhattan and its outlying boroughs, as the city continues installing new playgrounds and refurbishing old ones. It is a civic initiative that may have less to do with any impulse to make the area congenial to the youngest New Yorkers than with a desire to provide arenas for gladiatorial "extreme fighting", a recently legalised New York sport that puts pro wrestling to shame and its players in hospital. In the past two weeks alone, a six- year-old stabbed an 11-year-old playmate in the back in a Brooklyn playground (He's not a violent kid at all," his mother explained), while in Central Park, two children enlivened what would otherwise have been a dreary evening by slashing a 44-year-old man some 50 times, eviscerating him and throwing him in a lake. Millions of dollars have been donated to improve the Central Park Children's Zoo, due to reopen in September, providing a forum for even more creative acts of derring-do. A ticket concession may be in the offing.

All of this helps explain the outcry last month when New York police confiscated a Danish baby that had been reposing in a carriage outside a restaurant in the East Village while its parents drank margaritas within. Rather than being an over-zealous attempt to teach proper parenting to foreign visitors, the abduction was doubtless to protect the public. As cops have learned lately, there is no knowing what schemes of mayhem may be brewing inside the criminal mind of a silent, unattended child on the streets of New York - and better safe than sorry.

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