New York Times
A Forgotten Park in the South Bronx Gets a Small Boost
By LISA W. FODERAROMARCH 1, 2015
Pity St. Mary’s Park. Too small and too poor to be supported by a park conservancy that might fix up its faded charms. Too big to make it onto the list of 35 parks in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Community Parks Initiative, which is funneling $130 million in capital money into shabby parks in low-income neighborhoods across the city.
It is the largest park in the South Bronx, laden with the symbolism and expectations of its address. But while many of the surrounding neighborhoods have embarked on a turnaround in the past two decades, St. Mary’s Park, in the Mott Haven section, has lagged.
Its worn lawns and cracked courts have earned D’s and F’s on recent report cards for large parks created by the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. The bleachers overlooking its ball fields are without seats.
But now, St. Mary’s, which is unusual for its hilly terrain flecked with glacial outcroppings and mature trees, is poised to benefit from the city’s new focus on equality. Situated in one of the two poorest community board districts in the city (both in the South Bronx), the 35-acre park was just allotted $1.5 million from the City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, for the renovation of one of its playgrounds.
On Wednesday, the parks department is holding a “scoping session,” or design workshop, for the community in which it will solicit ideas to improve not only the playground, but also the park as a whole. And the New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit group founded by Bette Midler that has transformed struggling parks in poor Manhattan neighborhoods, is now in talks with the parks department about helping St. Mary’s.
For parks advocates, the tattered appearance of many parks in low-income areas carries a profound social cost.
“If you are a child growing up in a community where everything around you is in disarray, with trash and broken things, it sends a message that you don’t count,” said Deborah Marton, executive director of the New York Restoration Project. “If you walk through a well-maintained open space, even in a low-income community, you feel like your city is investing in you.”
Ms. Marton’s group adopted Sherman Creek, a former illegal dump site on the banks of the Harlem River in Upper Manhattan. In the past 10 years, it has created an oasis there, building and maintaining a children’s garden, a boathouse and paths that wend through native plants.
In the past year, the New York Restoration Project has worked in Mott Haven on a plan to foster connections between the neighborhood and nearby Randalls Island, with its major athletic complex. In a phone interview, Ms. Marton said it would be premature to describe her discussions with parks officials.
The grant to fix up the St. Mary’s playground will not go far in the park, where a new bathroom can cost $2 million. The 35-acre park is the largest in the South Bronx. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Mayor de Blasio’s push to address park equity last year centered on small parks and playgrounds that had received little investment in recent years. Not far from St. Mary’s, the 1.3-acre Lyons Square Playground was chosen for the initiative.
But Lyons Square Playground, and most of the other parks getting the financing, range in size from a half acre to 1.5 acres. The city said that focusing on such small spaces enabled the parks department to tackle 35 renovations at once. But medium-size parks like St. Mary’s were left out.
Given the park’s problems, the $1.5 million allocated by Ms. Mark-Viverito will not have a broad impact. A new park bathroom alone can run $2 million, and the playground to be made over, at St. Ann’s Avenue and East 147th Street, is large, with tired-looking basketball courts, tennis courts and play equipment.
The parks department conceded that there was currently no money in place for renovations at St. Mary’s beyond the western playground. But at the community meeting on Wednesday, the department will nonetheless ask residents for their broader vision. “This is a departure from the more incremental approach we’ve taken in some larger parks,” said Jennifer H. Sun, the department’s director of project development.
A comprehensive plan for St. Mary’s might address the balance between passive and active recreation areas within the park, as well as safety and access. “This will provide a basis for us to steer funding to the right places within the park,” she said.
Ms. Mark-Viverito said she hoped that her contribution would encourage the city to step up its commitment. “Open spaces and parks make our neighborhoods more sustainable, vibrant and livable places to call home,” she said, adding that the money would bring “much-needed improvements to a well-loved but under-resourced” park.
In mid-February, as temperatures hovered in the teens, few residents were in the park. But a handful of boys were taking advantage of the icy snowpack by sledding – or, rather, hurtling themselves down a hillside on a piece of plywood, or simply on their backs.
Jaivon Ramirez, 14, said he would like to see more exciting playgrounds, perhaps with seesaws, and new bleachers around the baseball field. His friend, Francisco Crespo, also 14, wished the park did not close at 10 p.m., an early curfew. (Most parks close at 1 a.m.) “Instead of closing down so early, they should hire more security guards,” he said.
But Tupper Thomas, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said St. Mary’s, with its rugged landscape, had tremendous potential. “The landscape is really rundown and every staircase has been redone in different generations, so there’s no overall look that says St. Mary’s Park,” she said. “But it’s still one of the loveliest parks in the system. It’s such an essential park to that community.”
Michelle Colon, 42, who works at a McDonald’s in Queens, said the park was the backdrop of her childhood. It was also the reason her mother chose her current townhouse, across the street from the park’s southern end.
“I love the park,” she said, finishing a cigarette outside her mother’s house. “I’ve been coming here since I was 8 years old. When I’m having a bad day, I go there to clear my head.”