Meet a New Yorker for Parks

Kamillah Hanks

May 4, 2012

The idea that a park can help spur community revitalization lies at the heart of Kamillah Hanks’ mission at Tappen Park in Stapleton, Staten Island.

Stapleton was once a center of commerce, home to several German-American breweries in the 19th century. But the completion of the Verrazno-Narrows Bridge, in 1964, helped speed the shift of the Island’s commercial center away from Stapleton, and the community suffered. Tappen Park suffered too.

“The health of the park was a representation of the overall health of the surrounding neighborhood,” said Hanks, 39, who has lived across the street from the park since 1999 and in Stapleton for more than 20 years. “It was pretty abandoned for a while – not the kind of place people wanted to take children to.”

Tappen is just 1.8 acres, but its location makes it a kind of town square for Stapleton. The Village Hall stands on the park’s western edge.

With a background in economic development, Hanks realized the park’s potential.

“I knew that a safe-feeling park could permeate the neighborhood. It’s not an overnight thing, but it can make a difference,” she said.

In 1999, Hanks was elected president of the brand-new Friends of Historic Tappen Park, created with the help of Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of City Parks Foundation and the Parks Department.

Her election was part of a three-year effort by Partnerships to engage community members around Tappen Park, and staff from Partnerships has provided support to her group ever since, including tool loans for cleanups (including the upcoming May 19 It’s My Park Day event), programming consultation, and grants to increase membership and collaboration with other community stakeholders.

“Working with Partnerships for Parks has enabled us to go into the community and say ‘join us’ with more credibility,” Hanks said.

Additionally, support from City Parks Foundation has helped Hanks bring programming into the park, including a summer concert series and Oktoberfest in 2011. More than 3,000 people attended events in the park last year, according to Hanks.

“That's a number," Hanks said, "that would’ve been unimaginable a few years back."

Soon, the group will change names and officially gain nonprofit status. It will be known as the Historic Tappen Park Community Partnership.

“We are changing the name because you cannot do this work alone,” Hanks said. “You have to have partners – schools, local business, other civic organizations.”

Case in point: Hanks' newly-formed relationship with Eden II Programs and its Eden II School, which will relocate to the Tappen Park area next year. The school is geared toward students ages 5 to 21 with autism, and 20 students have already joined Hanks’ group for a planting and horticulture lesson at Tappen. Eden II is helping to coordinate the upcoming It’s My Park Day event.

“Kamillah has welcomed us with open arms into the community and has already initiated programming for our children with autism. The park is beautiful thanks to her hard work, and we are excited to enjoy this special space together. I look forward to continuing our partnership," said Erika Hellstrom, Eden II’s Director of Development and Public Relations.
The City has eyed Stapleton as a new frontier in its long-term waterfront planning, and Hanks feels good about the neighborhood’s future. At the center of it all is Tappan Park, which feels more vibrant than it has in a generation.  
“People feel safe bringing their children here,” said Hanks, who in the same breath also noted her continuous desire to get students involved. “Everything will flow from kids and families in the park. There’s nothing more important.”

Kamillah Hanks: Tappen Park, Staten Island
Beverly McDermott: Kissena Park, Queens
In Memoriam: Evelyn Lauder: Citywide