ATLANTIC CITY - It was once a playground at Texas and Fairmount Avenues so feared by neighbors for its gang-related activities - drug dealing, prostitution and shootings - that children never played there.
But on Monday, the Texas Avenue Playground was officially opened by Gov. Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, along with United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, whose embassy donated $250,000 to rebuild it and an adjacent soccer field.
The site is about a block from the Texas Avenue School, and offers a recreation venue for it, officials said.
The lot, a block long and a half-block wide, has playground equipment, landscaped pathways, benches, a mural, and a bright-green artificial turf soccer field, so newly minted that on Monday it still had that rubbery new-bicycle-tire smell. About 30 red-uniformed children from the school took some practice kicks before the dedication ceremony and then played a game afterward.
Instead of being left open, the playground is fenced in, and its gate is closed at night to prevent the illicit activity and vandalism that used to occur there, officials said.
"It's amazing to see the transformation . . . what this new playground and this soccer field have done for this neighborhood," said Sharon Zappia, who has lived nearby for 32 years, and remembers a place covered in graffiti and strewed with broken glass, trash, used condoms, and hypodermic needles. "No one felt safe here. Now it's a place for the community to gather and enjoy."
The playground and much of the surrounding neighborhood were under water after Hurricane Sandy swept across the Jersey Shore on Oct. 29, 2012, damaging thousands of homes, businesses, schools and other public buildings in Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth and Ocean Counties.
Christie said that in the immediate aftermath of the storm, Al Otaiba - whom the governor described as a friend - committed $4.5 million to help enhance technological programs in 30 storm-damaged schools.
The Mideast nation also pledged $500,000 to build two soccer fields in storm-damaged areas - the Texas Avenue field and another whose location has not been announced. The gift was made as part of a partnership between the U.A.E. embassy and the Atlantic City Long-Term Recovery Group.
"We appreciate our friends from the embassy partnering with us on this initiative, which will have a real impact on the on this community," said Pastor Collin Days of the Second Baptist Church of Atlantic City, director of the recovery group. "It is an important part of the recovery effort for the people of this community."
Atlantic City is the seventh U.S. city to receive money from the U.A.E. to build such a field. The others are Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Dallas.
Al Otaiba said the embassy has collaborated with local communities to "provide deserving children access to quality sports facilities and programs" in areas that may have otherwise gone without them.
"I hope that our partnership - and this field - helps this community in just a small way on its journey back to full recovery from the storm," Al Otaiba told about 100 students, residents and local officials gathered for the event.
Christie called the embassy's "compassion and generosity" in helping New Jersey recover from Sandy "a strong recognition of the bilateral ties of the two countries."
"As the father of four children, I know how important sports activities are," Christie said. "Places like this help enhance the ideals of sportsmanship. All the things that happen in life . . . about camaraderie, teamwork, about winning and losing, are taught on fields like the one behind me."
Christie's comments Monday were limited to the dedication; he did not take questions. But he did say, as he made his way to his car, that he would speak more about Atlantic City's future at a conference this week. He also said he planned to garner a better explanation from United Airlines about its abrupt cancellation of service last Friday between Atlantic City International Airport and Chicago and Houston after a six-month run.
"I certainly would like to have a deeper explanation than the one I've gotten so far, which is none," Christie said.