News

Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Dorothea Poggi

Saturday, July 21, 2012
Though Ferry Point Park West is located in the shadow of the heavily trafficked Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in the eastern Bronx, the waterfront park, rich with breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline, is extremely hard to reach for most residents of New York City.

It’s too far to walk from the 6 train, and a recent attempt to reach the park by bus resulted in a trip over the bridge into Queens. There’s no actual designated stop along the route for the park, the driver told us – you have to specifically ask to be taken there.

If we felt the park had been forgotten before we arrived, this perception was confirmed after Dorothea Poggi, Founder and President of the Friends of Ferry Point Park, gave us a tour. The grounds were littered with trash, the fields far from lush. An historic Robert Moses-era walkway and 9/11 Memorial Grove of trees are overgrown with weeds. And while the Parks Department expects to put a state-of-the-art comfort station project out to bid later this summer, for now there is no running water in the park at all. Four portable bathrooms provide some relief near the park’s entrance, but Poggi says they are filthy and that large weekend crowds often use a nearby motel – or the park grounds – to relieve themselves.

While the Parks Department is aware of the problems plaguing Ferry Point West, the small community that has loved the park for decades remains concerned.

Poggi grew up in the tiny, three-block Ferry Point neighborhood just north of the park. She and her friends swam in the Westchester Creek and played on its banks. Like much of the southeastern Bronx waterfront, that space gradually became industrialized, and Poggi began visiting the vast Ferry Point Park as a teenager.

“I’d just go sit there and enjoy the peacefulness and views, and draw. And we loved using the park for big events – family reunions, church outings. It was a special place for the community.”

Poggi’s mother Catherine was an early advocate for the park, chairing Community Board 10’s Parks & Recreation Committee. But like many New York City parks in the 1970s and 80s, the space fell into disrepair. When Poggi drove past the park in the 1990s and saw a line of men using the parking lot as a bathroom, she had had enough.

“We had lost the space,” she said. “I realized that unless I did something, the community wouldn’t use the park.”   
   
She founded the Ferry Point Park West Coalition in 2001 and quickly became known as an open space champion in the area after gathering hundreds of signatures to push plans for a public, but not free, golf course to the eastern side of the park, on the other side of the bridge. In effect, that advocacy helped preserve Ferry Point Park West as a public park.  She made such an impact that Community Board 10 asked her to submit a master plan to the park, which eventually helped influence Parks Department planting schemes for the park.

Her group connected with Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of City Parks Foundation and the Parks Department, at Bronx Parks Speak Up, an annual event, in 2004, and began hosting It’s My Park Day events and cleanups that year, and have every year since. She signed up a record 800 volunteers in 2007 and continues to attract 200 volunteers to four cleanups a year. Because of the park’s location, finding volunteers has been tough, and her success is testament to her outreach and advocacy abilities. Most helpers come from schools and veterans groups from nearby neighborhoods, like Throgs Neck and Edgewater Park. MillionTreesNYC workers also often lend a hand.

“Even with our cleanups, there’s just trash everywhere,” Poggi said. In particular, she noted litter from weekend soccer league games, along with goat heads and assorted offerings from Hindu ceremonies which often wash up on the shore. She also expressed concerns about security, especially on crowded weekend days when drinking is prevalent.

In response to a question about maintenance, bathroom and security issues at the park, a Parks Department spokesman responded by email: “The Parks Department cleans Ferry Point Park daily. In addition, we have met with park user groups to encourage responsible park use, our Parks Enforcement officers regularly visit this park as part of their patrol routes, and we have worked with the NYPD to improve security in this park.”

The founding of Poggi’s group coincided with the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. A hillside waterfront view from the park’s southwest corner had offered a perfect view of the twin towers, and soon after the tragedy the Prince of Monaco donated one tree for each person killed in the attacks. Some of those trees were planted around the hillside vista to mark the gaping hole in the skyline. Today the Memorial Grove offers a solemn tribute and creates one of the most hauntingly serene spots in the city.

Though Poggi has been troubled by weekend behavior among the throngs of park-goers, a recent episode gave her hope: after a long afternoon of soccer matches, she spotted a man from one of the leagues cleaning up trash all along the fields.
 
“I recently almost threw in the towel,” she said. “But lately people have really started to notice our issues.  The soccer league playing a part in taking care of things gave me hope. I guess that’s what will keep me going.”

NY4P Commends City Council, Mayor for Increases to Parks Department Budget

Friday, July 06, 2012

NY4P commends the Bloomberg Administration and New York City Council for securing a targeted increase of more than $38 million to the Parks Department's budget for Fiscal Year 2013. Council leadership was provided by Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Finance Committee Chair Domenic M. Recchia, Jr., and the unusual bipartisan coalition who joined us at a June 5th rally to decry proposed cuts to Parks' budget:  Parks & Recreation Committee Chair Melissa Mark-Viverito, Brad Lander, Minority Leader James S. Oddo and Letitia James.

Among the restorations:

· A $9.737 million restoration for summer seasonal services, including $1.437 million for pools, $1 million for playground associates, and $7.3 million for other seasonal needs. These restorations will ensure that all municipal pools open for the full season, and that pools and playgrounds maintain regular hours;

·  $16.783 million for the Job Training Participant program, saving 845 full-time equivalent maintenance positions; 

· $9.2 million to make up for an FY12 staff attrition target that fell short; and

· $2 million for tree pruning, helping prevent dangerous conditions that result from insufficient tree maintenance.

“While this additional funding does not solve the Parks Department’s fiscal challenges, it is a significant stop-gap measure to help ensure that New Yorkers can continue to enjoy clean, safe parks,” said Holly Leicht, Executive Director of NY4P. “New Yorkers for Parks commends the Council and Administration not only for restoring seasonal funds, but also for saving nearly 850 maintenance jobs and bolstering essential funding for tree pruning.  In recent years, there has been a disconnect between the robust capital investments being put into new and existing flagship parks and the depletion of the maintenance budget. Today’s restorations signal a positive shift to better align Parks’ capital and maintenance budgets.”

The increase in Parks Department funding between the preliminary and final FY13 budgets is greater than in recent years. According to public officials, NY4P can claim a big share of the credit, thanks to recent advocacy efforts that included the June 5th rally with Council Members and park advocates on the steps of City Hall. We also helped bring the potential dangers of insufficient tree care to light, resulting in the first increase in funding for tree pruning since 2008.



Snug Harbor, Hidden Gem on Staten Island, Welcomes NY4P 

Thursday, July 05, 2012
Of all the public spaces in New York City, there’s only one where you can find everything from a garden built in China to a full vegetable farm to the keyboard on which the RZA composed the Wu-Tang Clan’s legendary “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" album.

Formerly a home for retired sailors, it’s hard to believe that the tranquil 83-acre, 28-building Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden is part of New York City. Visitors will find a wide range of activities and attractions: a two-acre farm, 14 acres of wetlands, rolling lawns for picnicking, the Richmond Country Savings Foundation Tuscan Garden, and the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, which was built by Chinese artists in China and shipped, piece by piece, to Staten Island in 1998.

And then there are the buildings, several landmarked, which comprise the largest ongoing adaptive reuse project in the country. There’s the second-oldest concert hall in the city (Carnegie is the oldest), and several visual art installations, including “Island Sounds: a 500 Year Music Mash-Up” – a whirlwind tour of the musical history of Staten Island that takes visitors from Native American music to a guitar signed by Journey ‘s Steve Augeri to that Wu-Tang keyboard. The exhibit coincides with the 120th anniversary of the Concert Hall.

Snug Harbor is also home to the Art Lab, the Council on the Arts & Humanities for Staten Island, the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, the Noble Maritime Collection, SHARP/Snug Harbor Artist Residency Program, Staten Island Children's Museum and the Staten Island Museum & Archives.

NY4P visited in mid-June, and we were deeply impressed – both by the beauty and diversity of the landscape but also the generosity of the staff. Our day ended with lunch, fresh from the farm, overlooking the Tuscan Garden.
 
Snug Harbor, just a five minute drive or bus ride from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, is unlike anywhere else in New York City and perfect for a summertime visit.

Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Phyllis Yampolsky

Wednesday, July 04, 2012
McCarren Pool opened to the public last weekend for the first time since 1984. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was there on the North Williamsburg/Greenpoint border for the ribbon-cutting, and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe jumped in with dozens of local children to re-christen the giant basin. The pool was packed all weekend with capacity crowds of 1,500 swimmers.
 
Behind the fanfare over the unlocking of the pool’s grand arched entranceway on Lorimer Street, intertwined with the well-worn account of the neighborhood’s transformed social landscape, is the story of Phyllis Yampolsky, who fought for nearly a quarter century – in the face of community opposition – for the pool’s rebirth.
 
Her memories of her earliest days as a Greenpoint resident, in 1982, are still vivid. “It was a remote little Polish town, a 1930s museum piece,” she said in an interview last week.
 
She wanted to get civically involved, and a friend urged her to join the Friends of MCarren Park, a small local group. In 1988, she became its Chair.
 
“I took the position because no one else wanted it,” she said.
 
McCarren Pool opened in 1936, one of 11 play spaces funded by the federal Works Progress Administration and planned by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to open that summer, the hottest on record in the United States. It held 6,800 swimmers under the watchful eyes of triumphant art deco-style ornamental eagles and was the summer hub of the area. But as Parks Department maintenance funds were slashed in the 1970s, the structure began to crumble. And as often happens, civic neglect begat misuse: trash was routinely thrown in the pool and fights often broke out. Neighborhood sentiment among the nearby Polish and Italian communities began to turn against the pool and its users – sentiment that was often racially tinged, Yampolsky said. The pool closed, the eagles placed in storage. While the city planned to refurbish the pool and open it for its 50th anniversary in 1986, many neighbors wanted it demo lished.
 
Pushing for and overseeing that Parks Department demolition project was the assignment handed down to Yampolsky’s group by her local community board, and she somewhat reluctantly accepted. But her stance soon shifted for good.
 
On a cool November afternoon in 1988, Yampolsky went to watch a local artist perform near the closed pool. Looking inside the gates, she was overcome with emotion.
 
“It was this lovely, mythical, magical place, a magnificent hole in the urban fabric,” she said. “I fell in love.”
 
That day marked the start of her 24-year push to save the pool. She quickly formed her own Friends of McCarren Park group, and the McCarren Park Conservancy, in 1994. Her goal was simple: bring back the pool.
 
“No one else in the community wanted it at the time,” she said. "But I knew it was the hearthstone of the neighborhood.”
 
She was, however, able to find architects and preservationists from across the city to join her cause. In 1989, those allies, along with a few local groups like El Puente, in South Williamsburg, effectively blocked the planned demolition.  
 
“We thought victory was nearly at hand, but really that victory was just the start of a 19 year battle,” she said.
 
Over the next several years, ideas for the pool were batted around, and the local support network grew. Celebrities with North Brooklyn ties, like Eddie Murphy, Spike Lee and Geraldo Rivera, donated their time and money to the pool's cause.
 
“Everyone, no matter who it was, always told me, ‘Hey, I grew up in that pool,'” Yampolsky said.
 
That became her group’s motto and in the early 90s, she hosted the "Hey I Grew Up in That Pool!" Grand Reunion Festival to raise awareness and funds.
 
After years of planning meetings, Yampolsky felt the tide had finally turned in 2001. She presented a plan to her community board in which the pool would generate revenue for its upkeep.
 
“The board parsed the plan and was impassioned by the idea,” she said. “The pool was going to be saved.”
 
A meeting to grant the plan final board approval, scheduled for September 17, 2001, never happened. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, City funding for the project, which had been in place, went elsewhere. Priorities shifted.
 
“The pro-demolition crowd was re-energized, and I began my fight anew,” Yampolsky said.
 
This time, finally, her timing was right. Her countless meetings with planners, architects and preservationists had made a mark, and people around the city began to realize the site’s potential. In 2005, it was reopened as a temporary outdoor concert venue, which became wildly popular among the rapidly expanding under-30 population in the area. In 2007, the pool’s fortunes shifted for good. In two final blows to the pro-demolition forces, it was designated a landmark by the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and awarded $50 million for a full rehabilitation as part of the Bloomberg Administration’s PlaNYC 2030 initiative.
 
Yampolsky relished a battle won last week on the eve of the pool’s reopening, and her memories came streaming back. Perhaps distracted by all the hype and hubbub, she still hadn’t decided on an outfit for the opening gala.
 
The next day, she saw what she had fought so hard for: the brick bathhouse was as sturdy as the day it opened in 1936; the eagles back in place. New touches, added by Rogers Marvel Architects, include locker room benches made from recycled Coney Island Boardwalk wood and hundreds of wire mesh baskets, used decades ago for locker room storage, dipped in silver paint and affixed to the new rec center’s ceiling. And of course the sparkling pool, newly painted in cerulean blue like a domed church in Santorini.
 
“For me to be able to see all this happen in my lifetime is a special dream that I never thought would come true,” said Yampolsky, her voice trembling with emotion. “For many years, people who wanted the pool gone hated me, and many still do. Maybe now they’ll finally change their minds.”

NY4P Makes Final Budget Season Push with City Hall Rally to Restore Parks Department Funding

Friday, June 15, 2012
NY4P was joined last week by a bipartisan group of New York City Council Members and park advocates from across the city to call upon the Council and Bloomberg Administration to work together to restore $33.4 million to the Parks Department’s expense budget prior to the July 1 deadline. The rally was held on the eve of the final public testimony on the Fiscal Year 2013 budget.
 
$33.4 million is the base minimum to ensure that all of the city’s swimming pools can be opened and sufficient seasonal staff can be hired this summer, essential maintenance jobs are not slashed, and trees are pruned and stumps removed to keep sidewalks and streets safe.
 
“The Bloomberg Administration is to be commended for its unprecedented commitment to creating great new parks, but we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the budget for maintaining and operating our city’s 2,100 existing parks has been cut over 23 percent in the past five years,” NY4P Executive Director said to cheers at the event. “To care about New York City’s neighborhoods is to care about its parks. We are here today to say ‘we care,’ and the time has come to start investing in the maintenance of our city’s park system as generously as we have in its expansion.”
 
Leicht was flanked by Council Members Melissa Mark-Viverito, Brad Lander, James Oddo, Letitia James, and backed by “friends of” park groups from all five boroughs, workers’ rights advocates, community gardeners and members of regional and waterfront planning organizations.
 
The following analysis, which NY4P submitted to the City Council, is a detailed breakdown of the additional funding we called for:

Seasonal staff and services:  $13.12 Million
As has become the tradition in recent years, the FY13 Executive Budget does not include funding needed for summer seasonal staff – including Job Training Participants (JTP’s) and Playground Associates – and four swimming pools (Wagner in Manhattan, Howard in Brooklyn, Fort Totten in Queens and Faber in Staten Island), and would necessitate a reduced season for all pools. Not only should $13.12 million be restored to avert these service cuts, but these functions should be baselined in DPR’s budget going forward, as they are essential services of the Parks Department.
 
Job Training Participant (JTP) program:  $16.25 Million
JTPs make up the bulk of Parks’ maintenance crews, yet this program may lose up to 700 positions in Fiscal Year ’13, on top of seasonal reductions.  In our comparison between the proposed FY 2013 budget and the FY 2008 adopted budget, NY4P identified a decrease of 1,435 JTP workers, a 62% cut. If the Council and Administration do not restore $16.25 million to hold the JTP program harmless, New Yorkers will increasingly see a decline in park conditions across the city.
 
Pruning and stump removal:  $4 Million

At the same time the City is planting a million new trees, the budget for pruning and stump removal has been slashed by 80 percent since 2008. With a budget of $1.4 million, trees are now pruned on a 15- to 20-year cycle rather than the recommended five-year cycle, and funding for stump removal, which stood at $2.3 million in FY08, has been totally eliminated. Tree maintenance is not optional; unmaintained trees create dangerous conditions, and $4 million for pruning and stump removal should be baselined in DPR’s budget.

update (July 6, 2012):

NY4P commends the Bloomberg Administration and New York City Council for securing a targeted increase of more than $38 million to the Parks Department's budget for Fiscal Year 2013. Council leadership was provided by Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Finance Committee Chair Domenic M. Recchia, Jr., and the unusual bipartisan coalition who joined us at a June 5th rally to decry proposed cuts to Parks' budget:  Parks & Recreation Committee Chair Melissa Mark-Viverito, Brad Lander, Minority Leader James S. Oddo and Letitia James.

Among the restorations:

· A $9.737 million restoration for summer seasonal services, including $1.437 million for pools, $1 million for playground associates, and $7.3 million for other seasonal needs. These restorations will ensure that all municipal pools open for the full season, and that pools and playgrounds maintain regular hours;

·  $16.783 million for the Job Training Participant program, saving 845 full-time equivalent maintenance positions; 

· $9.2 million to make up for an FY12 staff attrition target that fell short; and

· $2 million for tree pruning, helping prevent dangerous conditions that result from insufficient tree maintenance.

“While this additional funding does not solve the Parks Department’s fiscal challenges, it is a significant stop-gap measure to help ensure that New Yorkers can continue to enjoy clean, safe parks,” said Holly Leicht, Executive Director of NY4P. “New Yorkers for Parks commends the Council and Administration not only for restoring seasonal funds, but also for saving nearly 850 maintenance jobs and bolstering essential funding for tree pruning.  In recent years, there has been a disconnect between the robust capital investments being put into new and existing flagship parks and the depletion of the maintenance budget. Today’s restorations signal a positive shift to better align Parks’ capital and maintenance budgets.”

The increase in Parks Department funding between the preliminary and final FY13 budgets is greater than in recent years. According to public officials, NY4P can claim a big share of the credit, thanks to recent advocacy efforts that included the June 5th rally with Council Members and park advocates on the steps of City Hall. We also helped bring the potential dangers of insufficient tree care to light, resulting in the first increase in funding for tree pruning since 2008.

 

Con Edison Joins NY4P for Spring Cleanup & Planting in Morningside Park

Thursday, June 14, 2012
Rain fell overnight into the early morning of Saturday, June 2, but the sun was shining for NY4P’s mid-morning cleanup and planting in Morningside Park – perfect conditions for planting and weeding in the still-damp soil.
 
We were joined by 15 volunteers from Daffodil Project sponsor Con Edison and Friends of Morningside Park, along with Parks Department Supervisor Joe Spano and several maintenance workers from Parks.
 
Friends of Morningside Park head Brad Taylor began the day by sharing the history of the park, which opened in 1895 and was the final green space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
 
Then we dug in, weeding a hillside in the park’s southwest corner. By 1pm, with Joe's guidance, eight new dogwood and mulberry trees were planted along the hillside.
 
Thanks to Con Edison, the Parks Department and Friends of Morningside Park for a successful morning.

Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Deborah Myers

Monday, June 11, 2012
At NY4P’s June 5 Parks budget rally on the steps of City Hall, Debra Myers arrived with a Claremont Park/Mt. Eden Malls/Grand Concourse sign, and a broad smile. She grabbed a green “Support Our Parks” shirt and began waving it wildly. When the event ended, she started handing shirts to participants in the next rally – totally unrelated to parks – that had booked time on the steps. What could they do other than oblige her? She joined them in the fourth row, still waving her green shirt, and still smiling and shouting her support for parks. Though perhaps slightly confused, the participants in the rally joined in, waving their shirts, too. Her passion for parks is contagious. 
 
The effect Myers has on people, along with the lessons of her earliest years, have helped her make a difference for more than 40 years in the Mount Eden section of the Bronx.
 
“I grew up in South Carolina – a rural farming community,” Myers said. “My mother died when I was just six, but I remember always gardening with her. I never forgot how she taught me to be proud of where I lived because it looked beautiful.”
 
In the 1960s, she moved to Harlem, and a few years later, the Bronx, and had children of her own.
 
“All I saw when I moved was concrete, sidewalks, dirty tenement buildings,” she said. “I couldn’t walk outside into green, like I had in my childhood.”
 
She began small, by gaining permission from her landlord to plant flowers in front of her building.

“I wanted to teach my children the same thing my mother taught me. I wanted them to go out their front door and see beauty, like I had,” she said.
 
Her work along the block continued, and she became active in the local civic world, becoming her building’s Tenant Association President and frequently speaking out in public meetings about local education and housing issues. As people encountered the warmth of her community pride, they, too, began planting flowers along residential blocks.
 
Since 1997, Myers has expanded her beautification efforts to nearby 38-acre Claremont Park and the Mount Eden Malls, a narrow, five-block green space that abuts Claremont. Neighbors and friends have joined in droves, helping to line the formerly trash-strewn space with tulips, NY4P daffodils, and other flowers.
 
But Myers didn't stop there. In 2004, she secured a $500,000 allocation from former New York City Council Member Maria Bayez for It’s My Park Day plantings and cleanups along the Malls and attracted the support of Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of the City Parks Foundation and the Parks Department. Partnerships for Parks joined her for the inaugural It’s My Park Day in 2004 and has been a steady partner ever since. In 2006, she founded Friends of Mount Eden Malls and Claremont Park.

But then, despite her efforts to keep the park clean and organize planting and weeding events, Myers said the park’s maintenance conditions deteriorated, largely due to fewer permanent and temporary workers dedicated to Claremont.
 
That makes sense, considering the severe cuts that have been made to the Parks Department’s maintenance and operations budget since 2008, and the 62 percent cut in the temporary worker program that makes up the bulk of the Parks Department’s maintenance staff. Myers’ trusted Park Supervisor was transferred without notice away from Claremont, a place he had known intimately, Myers said.
 
But the last straw for her was NY4P’s 2011 Report Card on Large Parks, which gave Claremont a “D" for maintenance conditions. The report found “an extraordinary amount of litter” impacting athletic fields, courts, lawns and natural areas, along with weed growth, hazardous tree stumps and non-functioning bathrooms.
 
Myers took the report to her local Community Board’s Planning Committee meeting and to Bronx Parks Commissioner Hector Aponte’s office.
 
“The Department really became focused on Claremont after that,” she said. “They really listened, offered to work with us in the community on cleaning and weeding, and now it is much better. I was grateful for the grade, to be honest. It’s kept people on their toes.”
 
Myers is now working with Council Member Fernando Cabrera to secure capital funding for tree pruning, grass re-seeding, and sidewalk and retaining wall repairs. If her past influence and attitude is any indication, she will succeed. Myers just keeps pushing, and touching people with her relentless optimism and spirit. Thanks to those lessons her mom taught her as a little girl in South Carolina, she won’t be letting up anytime soon.
 
“I visit the park, or the Malls, or even my block, and I see children able to see beauty. It gives them a sense of pride in where they live. You can’t give a child back a childhood. I see a little girl smile, and it just makes me so happy. I can’t stop because of that.”

In Ceremony, NY4P Announces 9/11 Tribute Partnership with Bay Ridge School

Friday, May 18, 2012
If there was ever a moment that underscored the importance of the Daffodil Project as a living memorial to 9/11, Wednesday morning’s dedication ceremony at William McKinley IS 259 was it.

An overflow crowd of firefighters, police officers and military personnel gathered in a courtyard at the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn school to honor a student memorial mural that runs along a third-floor hallway of the school. NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht announced a partnership with the school through the Daffodil Project, which NY4P began in 2001 as a tribute to September 11 and, with almost 5 million free daffodil bulbs planted citywide, has grown into the largest volunteer effort in the city’s history.

The Tribute WTC Visitor Center honored McKinley teachers Thomas Buxton and Roma Karas in February for their 9/11 awareness curriculum, which has inspired 12- and 13-year-old students to create the nearly 700-foot mural and more than 600 original poems over the past six years in remembrance of the attacks.

“The students at McKinley have led an inspired effort to learn about, understand and memorialize the tragic events of 9/11,” Leicht said. "We’re honored that they’ve invited us to join them this fall to plant more than 3,000 bulbs on their school grounds – one for every life lost that day – which will bloom each spring as a sign of renewal and remembrance.”

The exhibit also includes an American flag, and steel and glass from the original World Trade Center site, all of which was donated to the school by Local 46 in honor of the students' six-year memorialization project.

Wednesday’s event was solemn and patriotic throughout, with performances of "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" sung by former NYPD officer Daniel Rodriguez, and "Amazing Grace" performed by the FDNY’s Emerald Society Pipes and Drums. Speakers included FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, NYPD Chief Thomas M. Chan and Tribute Center Board member Lee Ielpi, who briefly choked up while thanking his son, Jonathan, an FDNY firefighter who was killed in the attacks, for giving him the opportunity to meet so many amazing people like the students and teachers of McKinley.

In Memoriam: Greg Jackson

Friday, May 11, 2012
When the Knicks drafted Guilford College point guard Greg Jackson in the 5th round of the 1974 NBA draft, there was no doubt about where he’d live. Jocko, as friends called him, was coming home to Brownsville. During his season with the team, he took the subway to games at Madison Square Garden, always flanked by a group of friends and neighbors from Brownsville. He continued to stand alongside them for the rest of his life.

Jackson, who died on May 1 at age 60 of an apparent heart attack, was a tireless neighborhood advocate and the longtime manager of the Parks Department’s Brownsville Recreation Center. He became manager of the facility in 1997 and transformed it into a welcoming, supportive oasis for a generation of children, teenagers, adults and seniors in the neighborhood – what Rosanne Haggerty, President of the nonprofit group Community Solutions, which works on poverty and housing issues in the area, recently described as “an inviting and respectful place where the idea of violence was challenged by Greg’s warm but firm management.”

That sentiment was echoed by LeRoy Temple, Brooklyn Director of Recreation for the Parks Department. “The first time I met him, I thought – he’s like an uncle,” Temple said. “Everyone’s uncle. Someone reassuring, calm, someone who put you at ease – whether you were 8 or 25 or 40-years-old. He had that same presence for everybody.”

Jackson lived in Brownsville nearly his entire life, and often talked about the “village” it had been when he grew up: a bustling, vibrant and tight-knit community of tenements, small shops and factories. He remained devoted to upholding that environment, even long after crime had overtaken the neighborhood – starting within the walls of the Rec Center.
 
As The New York Times noted in his obituary, the first thing Jackson did on the job was to remove protective, forbidding bulletproof barriers from inside the center. Soon after, The Times said, he “enlisted local artists to paint murals on the walls and expanded the center’s programs beyond athletics, staging plays, running talent shows and holding roller-skating nights. He organized annual old-timers’ weeks, inviting former residents to return for softball and basketball games and barbecues in the name of instilling community pride.”

Temple distinctly remembers the first old-timer event he attended.

“I had heard rumors about the old-timers events, about how well things were run, how strong the relationship was between the Center and the NYPD, but it was really something I needed to witness myself,” Temple said. “I just thought – he’s got everything under control, everything in line. To shut down Linden Avenue with 10,000 people there – it was amazing to see.”
 
In her tribute, Haggerty captured Jackson’s day-to-day influence at the center:

“A typical day at the ‘BRC’ would have seniors at exercise class, lots of youth basketball league action, a swim meet, two or three community service projects being organized, teenagers using the recording studio, afterschool programs,  and Greg working his magic: connecting people, calling in favors to help someone in need, guiding a visitor to see the murals, fish tanks, planetarium and other quirky projects (we once held a meeting in a space decorated as a haunted house) and making everyone who crossed his path a believer in the possibility of restoring the 'village' of Brownsville.”

NY4P had the pleasure of partnering with Jackson and the WNBA’s New York Liberty to host a free basketball clinic last summer in Brownsville, and we saw firsthand his warm leadership style and tremendous impact on the community's youth.

“A few weeks before the WNBA event, we went to meet Greg and visit the Rec Center," said NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht. "There was a torrential downpour, and there wasn’t a soul on the streets.  But when we walked into BRC, it was like a beehive – kids everywhere, playing basketball, working out in the gym, following Greg around.  There was so much energy and love in that place; you felt it the second you walked in.  And there was Greg, quietly, unassumingly at the center of it all.”

His work often extended beyond his role as manager of the Rec Center. As Founding Director of Community Solutions’ Brownsville Partnership, Jackson spearheaded efforts to tackle a host of local problems, including health, housing, education and violence reduction.

Every step of the way, Temple said, Jackson lived by a mantra that his grandmother had taught him: “Who have you helped today?”

"He’d walk through the neighborhood and ask that question,” Temple said, “and passed on that spirit to countless children.”

Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Phil Hawkins

Thursday, May 10, 2012
Phil Hawkins knew he and his wife had made an ambitious move in 1986 to Crown Heights, a neighborhood roiled by racial tensions and mired in poverty.

He wasn’t shocked to hear gun shots – “three or four times a week maybe” – from neaby Brower Park.

His community work began as a member of his local block association, the Block at Prospect Place, where he helped secure sewer replacements and gained experience working with the local community board, elected officials and police precinct. It wasn’t until 2010 that he helped form Friends of Brower Park, which has helped transform the park into the busy neighborhood anchor it is today.

“There hadn’t been any consistent neighborhood upkeep or stewardship,” Hawkins said. “So we started small – cleaning the park, cleaning the park, cleaning the park. We wanted to change the tone of the park. That back-slapping interconnectedness we see now with people in the neighborhood is tough to get if the park isn’t clean.”

Besides instituting a range of programming in Brower Park – including an annual tree-lighting that has been attended by New York State Senator Eric Adams and top Parks Department officials – Hawkins said the work of Friends of Brower Park has helped unify the north Crown Heights community, especially in the case of a local park maintenance worker.

The worker’s daughter, recently off to college in the Midwest, was struggling to pay housing costs as a freshman. So Hawkins appealed to neighbors, local churches, and Senator Adams, all of whom pitched in to reach the goal needed to keep the daughter in school.

“I like to think that that story tells you something about our organization’s personality,” Hawkins said. “Through all the work we’ve done actually in the park itself, that was one of my biggest successes.”

Hawkins is also proud of his efforts to broaden the appeal of weekly Sunday afternoon soccer games. While the players traditionally hailed from the neighborhood’s sizable Caribbean population, Hawkins has, slowly but successfully, recruited members of the local Hasidic Jewish community – most of whom live on the other side of Eastern Parkway – to join the games.

“It just began with one, maybe two players. But when I saw that, I knew the seed was planted,” he said.

With Friends of Brower Park nearing the final steps of 501(c)(3) establishment, Hawkins has his plate full with an array of seasonal park activities and events  – Easter egg hunts and Santa Claus for kids, exercise classes for seniors, a Sing for Hope anyone-can-play piano for all ages – just to name a few. He has also partnered with NY4P through the Daffodil Project, and in 2010 hosted children misplaced by the Haiti earthquake for a planting. Neighborhood involvement, nonexistent when Hawkins moved to Crown Heights, is at an all-time high.

“Now, it’s not a matter of recruiting, it’s a matter of managing and organizing all of our volunteers,” he said. “We’ve created a network of stakeholders, and when you have that, you lose that element of instability you had years ago.”