Meet a New Yorker for Parks

Len Maniace

February 10, 2012

It might seem unlikely that a neighborhood volunteer park group could help produce a comprehensive planning document that draws upon extensive feedback from one of the most diverse communities in the country.

But that’s what happened in 2010, when a group of civic organizations unveiled the Green Agenda for Jackson Heights, Queens. The project was a joint effort, but also the culmination of more than two decades of community stewardship by Len Maniace, a longtime Jackson Heights resident and the Vice President of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group.

When Maniace moved to Jackson Heights nearly two decades ago, the neighborhood’s main park, Travers, “was a disaster, almost seemed beyond help,” he said.

He joined Friends of Travers Park, and helped organize cleanups. He become Chair of that group in 1996 and convinced the city to construct new fencing, and established a greenmarket, concert series, and Department of Transportation Play Street on 78th Street.

None of these were small tasks. But when Maniace read NY4P’s 2009 Queens City Council District 25 Profile, he discovered that the area’s parkland per resident ratio ranked 49th of 51st, and that its parks & playground acres per child ranked 50th. Further, he learned from NY4P’s 2010 Open Space Index – which looked at Jackson Heights specifically – that his neighborhood’s parkland/resident by acre ratio was just .04 per thousand residents. The citywide standard is 2.5 acres per thousand.

“Once we saw that report, those numbers really gave us a drum to beat, a tool for action,” he said.

Emboldened to broaden the scope of his activism, he partnered with Queens Community House and the Pratt Center for Economic Development, secured a state environmental justice grant, and founded the Green Agenda for Jackson Heights project.

The year-long endeavor aimed to determine the best way for the neighborhood to move ahead with its open space agenda. A primary goal was to reach the largest number of residents in the eclectic neighborhood as possible. That’s where Queens Community House came in. The community organizing group began outreach to the neighborhood’s Bengali- and Spanish-speaking populations, as well as Islamic centers, urging them to attend visioning sessions run by the Pratt Center.

More than 400 people attended 15 sessions, where they used Pratt-designed workbooks to list their priorities for the community. Queens Community House even staffed the events with translators.

“Queens Community House really made a major push to reach a lot of these folks that often get missed by these sorts of efforts,” Maniace said.

In the end, the Green Agenda presented a range of policy suggestions, from increased open space, to regulation of green building standards, to congestion-reducing measures for roadways to more sustainable trash disposal.

The local Council Member, Daniel Dromm, has been particularly receptive, Maniace said.

Since the Green Agenda release in 2010, the Parks Department and Trees New York have helped expand their Citizen Pruner and Adopt-a-Tree programs in Jackson Heights, and the State Department of Transportation has agreed to open a space under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway for trash composting. Maniace continues to push the report’s agenda and hopes that one day Jackson Heights will be the “greenest, most environmentally sustainable community in New York City.”

Though the numbers might belie that aspiration, they've also helped spur much progress. Furthermore, NY4P research has found that one of the most important factors driving neighborhood open space improvement in New York City is a strong core of community park stewards.
And few neighborhoods have advocates quite like Maniace, who has taken park volunteerism to new heights.

Dorothea Poggi: Ferry Point Park West, Bronx
Phyllis Yampolsky: McCarren Park Pool, Brooklyn
Debra Meyers: Claremont Park & Mount Eden Malls, Bronx
Phil Hawkins: Brower Park, Brooklyn
In Memoriam: Greg Jackson: Brownsville Recreation Center, Brooklyn
Kamillah Hanks: Tappen Park, Staten Island
Pat Courtney: Isham Park, Manhattan
Rocco Bescia: Kaiser Park, Brooklyn
Lorita Watson: Williamsbridge Oval
Christine Murray: McCarren Park Dog Run
Kathleen Vorwick: Pouch Camp & Staten Island Greenbelt, Staten Island
Len Maniace: Jackson Heights Beautification Group, Queens
Martha Lopez-Gilpin: Astoria Park, Queens
Lucy Aponte: Soundview Park, Bronx
Lynn Rogers: Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries, Staten Island
Beverly McDermott: Kissena Park, Queens
In Memoriam: Evelyn Lauder: Citywide