Meet a New Yorker for Parks

Phil Hawkins

May 18, 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 nearby 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.”

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