Meet a New Yorker for Parks

Raphael Schweizer 

July 1, 2013

At New Yorkers for Parks’ office, it has become a springtime tradition, as predictable as the annual budget cycle. 

The calls and e-mails come in in waves: just before the City Council’s March and April preliminary budget hearings, and then again before the early June final budget hearings. That caller and e-mailer is Raphael Schweizer, a fiercely dedicated Bronx park advocate, and a man who never misses a chance to advocate for more funding for the Parks Department. 

“I know lots of people who just complain about the Parks Department - maintenance, security, other issues. But they don’t really look at the issues and go and advocate for improvements,” Schweizer said. “So I thought, ‘if not them, why not me?” 

The e-mails began this year in mid-March, just before the preliminary Council hearing. Drawing from an NY4P newsletter, Schweizer was working on a statement to present at the hearing on behalf of his community board. Thoughtful and thorough, the resolution not only passed his own Community Board 11, but also Bronx Community Boards 9, 10 and 12, along with the Bronx Borough Board. 

A few weeks later, as the early June executive budget hearing approached, more calls.

“He doesn’t stop until he gets all the numbers verified,” said NY4P Outreach & Events Coordinator Emily Walker. “He’s very dedicated.” 

Not that Schweizer limits his advocacy to the City budget. A lifelong Bronx resident, the 27-year-old is the co-founder of the Pelham Parkway Citizens Conservation Corps, a three-year-old group committed to maintaining the 109-acre park that runs down the middle of its namesake road in the east Bronx, connecting the Bronxdale, Bronxwood, Pelham Gardens, Pelham Parkway North and Morris Park neighborhoods, among others. He also helped found the Bronx Park East Community Association, which focuses on crime and other neighborhood issues. 

On weekends, he’s a fixture in the park, monitoring the wildly popular barbecue spots in its western portion. Though there are frequent litter problems, Schweizer has made strides in his efforts to keep the area clean. He’s usually joined in his clean-up efforts by a number of children and adults from the area, many of whom, like the majority of the barbecuers, are Mexican.

“It creates an understanding, and bringing the kids makes it endearing,” he said. “We haven’t gotten one negative reaction.”

Even if there’s a group Schweizer and his friends fail to reach in person, his homemade clean-up reminder signs line the park, as do the tree pits he’s built and mulch he’s laid. 

“The park is really an undervalued space outside the immediate community,” Schweizer said. “It’s expansive and has a huge diversity of species and foliage. It’s a world in and of itself.” 

Schweizer often works closely with the Parks Department, and offers nothing but plaudits for his local park supervisor, Clinton Johnson.

“He’s just phenomenal, “Schweizer said. “A good-hearted and hard-working man.”

Others in the area feel the same way. 

And so Schweizer does all he can to help the Parks Department succeed.

So much so, in fact, that even after his budget resolution was broadly passed, Schweizer had more to offer. At a Community Board 11 meeting, he was met with one final moment of inspiration, and began to write. 

“’I’ve always had an inkling toward arts and poetry,” he said, “so I thought ‘why not?’”

Days later, in the venerable Council Chambers at City Hall, he sat before Finance Committee Chair Domenic M. Recchia, Jr. and recited his poem, of which this is just an excerpt:

                  Pelham Parkway, Bronx Park, Pelham Bay Park, Van Cortlandt forest
                  These oaks, these maples
                  Without gender, nonetheless they capture our heart, they spur our soul.
                  They touch the tenderness that may be tucked beneath
                  Hardened city dwellers
                  Who may have never experienced a Vermont sunrise
                  Or wandered in a northeastern forest

                  For our parks ARE this city’s forest
                  They are OUR forests.
                  Our oasis.

                  Just like superman and superwoman have a fortress of solitude, 
                  So do Bronx-dwellers.
                  In fact, the most fortresses of any borough.

Thanks in part to advocates like Raphael Schweizer, the City Council once again restored tens of millions of dollars in funding this week. In large part, it's the passion of advocates like him who made that possible.