Before and After the Storm, Daffodil Project Touched Many

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The transformation among children involved in this fall’s Daffodil Project plantings at New York City Housing Authority community centers was striking.
Early on, we noticed a pattern.  As children gathered for planting instructions outside their community centers, many had their heads down. Handshakes were limp, and hellos were mumbled. But as the process was explained, gloves put on, and bulbs and trowels passed out, the spark of inquisitive energy became palpable. The kids became alive with questions, and smiles appeared almost to a person.

They ran between the plots with their tools and bulbs, giggling, eager not only to plant their bulbs but to distribute them perfectly in each plot – spaces they are guaranteed to remember as their own come springtime, with a sense of accomplishment.

They asked to dig new holes and plant more bulbs wherever there was room. And when they came across their first earthworm, forget about it – pure, unadulterated glee spread among the young planters like wildfire as everyone gathered to observe the little creature before carefully placing it back in the soil.

Before we knew it, our time together was up, but they wanted to know: would we return to share the garden with them in springtime? They tapped us on the shoulder, or sometimes offered big hugs, to say thank you.

Those children have a story to tell about how the Daffodil Project touched their lives, as do the thousands of other volunteers who participate in the Project. Perhaps the story’s about a longstanding annual park planting, or a trip to one of our borough distributions, where somehow lugging a sack of 600 bulbs in rough red netting is always more fun than you expected. Or maybe it’s about taking the perfect picture for our photo contest.

While everyone’s story is unique, what those children felt – that sense of wonder, community pride and innocent ownership of their little plots of land, the satisfaction they feel from the simple act of planting a daffodil bulb in a small hole in a seemingly unnoticed corner of New York City – is the same for everyone.

This year, we focused on spreading that feeling to as many new audiences as we could, including through three new initiatives. We held a distribution and six youth plantings at New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments citywide, including two in Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy. We partnered with the Horticultural Society of New York City to line the Rikers Island visitor and juvenile detention center entrances with bulbs. And we joined with Common Cents, the nation’s largest children’s philanthropy program, to deliver Daffodil Project planting kits to 20 elementary schools citywide.

We had our highest demand for bulbs ever, in part thanks to our most ambitious outreach effort to date. We distributed free daffodil bulbs to nearly 700 individuals and neighborhood groups, and 3,000 kids participated in our school and NYCHA plantings. As a result, more than 250,000 new daffodils will bloom next spring, adding to the five million already planted over the past 12 years.

In our 2013 season, we’ll aim even higher. But what’s most important is what underlies all the numbers: those stories and small moments, those annual traditions and community gatherings – that feeling of connection to something both intimate and local but also so much bigger than any single person or neighborhood.

The Daffodil Project is generously supported by Con Edison, Ernst & Young,  the Greenacre Foundation and the New York City Council.

Coney Island Recovery Effort Brings Storm's Impact into Sharp Relief

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tom’s Restaurant was one of the only places open in Coney Island almost two weeks after the storm, so it was a natural gathering place for NY4P staff who visited the devastated community on November 9th at the request of the City to do what we do best: survey the conditions of the neighborhood's public spaces.

On streets near the Boardwalk, trash blew past shuttered storefronts. In Kaiser Park, on the north side of the neighborhood, the trash stayed put, tangled in shorefront brush. In some spots within public housing courtyards and playgrounds near the ocean, only the tops of green wooden benches were visible above the snowstorm of sand that had washed in from the beach. The sand surge nearly wiped out an entire brace of ducks living in a Surf Avenue community garden.

The open spaces of Coney Island felt forlorn and forgotten when the staff of New Yorkers for Parks arrived. We came at the request of the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC), which needed help assessing damage and prioritizing clean-up needs in advance of a massive volunteer initiative scheduled for the following day.

After the storm, the bulk of our research and advocacy work came to a halt. As our staff met in a Midtown conference room, away from our shuttered Lower Manhattan office, we decided to do anything we could to help the City in its recovery effort. Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of the Parks Department and the City Parks Foundation that works closely with volunteer and neighborhood park groups, tasked us with identifying qualified individuals to lead volunteer teams in cleaning parks citywide. Thus far, we’ve delivered more than 20 team leaders for cleanups across the city.  In addition, CIDC asked us to walk every block of Coney Island between Ocean Parkway and 37th Street, beach to creek, to create a prioritized list of every public space in need of cleanup, from parks and playgrounds to schoolyards, community gardens and New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) open spaces.

Scenes were eerie as we began our assessment. The neighborhood seemed frozen in a moment of shock. Formerly flooded cars were parked hopelessly with open hoods. Residents waited on corners below broken traffic lights, asking when food would arrive. Some lingered by waterlogged couches, chairs and dining room sets waiting for garbage pickup. Boxes of rotted bananas, once slated for delivery, stretched half a block near the Haber Houses. There was little moving, other than the occasional utility truck or emergency vehicle. The next day, several hundred volunteers would arrive, eager to help. But that Friday provided a tragic post-Sandy snapshot.

As our four two-person teams methodically canvassed our assigned zones, top priorities emerged: sweeping mud and sand off play surfaces, bagging trash and debris, hauling sand out of playgrounds and community gardens.  As hard-hit as many parks and playgrounds were, most heartbreaking was the squalid conditions of much of NYCHA's grounds, where many residents were living without power or heat.

The next day, several of our team leaders took on the clean-up tasks NY4P had identified.

“When I arrived, I wasn’t totally prepared,” said Michael Samuelian, one of our leaders. “The devastation was amazing.”

Sameuelian led a trash-removal team, along with several dozen students from a Flatbush high school, along the Kaiser Park shoreline.

“It was daunting at first,” he said. “And when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to get a sense of what you’re accomplishing. But then when I stepped back, there was a real feeling of pride; we had a sense of the difference we had made. It was especially meaningful because we were working so far from the areas most people visit near the Boardwalk.”

It was a homecoming of sorts for Samuelian, who grew up in nearby Bensonhurt.

“I hadn’t been back in years. Now, I want to keep coming back to help.”

The first thing that came to mind for Mark Foggin, another NY4P-enlisted team leader, was the damage in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I don’t want to draw too many comparisons, but there were a lot of similarities,” he said. “There was just an immense amount of water and debris that impacted the neighborhood in a really shocking way.”

Foggin was deeply affected by September 11 and has jumped to assist with disaster relief efforts ever since. Besides New Orleans, he also assisted last year in the Catskills after Hurricane Irene.

Foggin’s team began the day cleaning the courtyards at Unity Towers, a NYCHA development. The gates of the courtyards served “almost as a netting for garbage flowing in,” he said.

The team of 12 filled 38 large trash bags at Unity.

He moved on to Kaiser with a smaller team in the afternoon, joining a group of local volunteers to scrape mud from the park’s basketball courts.

As Foggin walked to the subway at the end of the day, he saw several dozen cars, inundated by salt water, being loaded onto a flatbed truck, headed for a junkyard.

Foggin grew up in the Annadale section of Staten Island. Though his neighborhood wasn’t struck hard, he was eager to visit his home borough, but also eager, like Samuelian, to come back to Coney Island.

“This is the first time in many years that I’ve had the ability to do that in my hometown. I hate having to do it, but I was certainly glad I was able to play a role in it.”

On the end of our surveying day, signs of painful progress were evident: a Red Cross hot food truck parked on Neptune Avenue had attracted a line that stretched nearly a block. Residents gathered around a Verizon charging station next to the Coney Island Houses on Surf Avenue.

A cold, raw wind whipped off the water onto the Boardwalk, where planks had been loosened or dislodged by the storm.  As two staff members noticed the damage to the base of the famed Parachute Jump, a local resident walked by and shook his head.

“Lived here for decades,” he said, physically shaken by the emotion of his words.“Never, never seen it like it this. Tough to take.”

He staggered away into the wind.

The long ride into Manhattan on the D train provided time for reflection for some staff members. There are many parts of New York City that seemed barely touched by the storm, areas where long grocery lines seemed to be the biggest problem.

But the sight of a New York City neighborhood stuck in a profound moment of disbelief and hopelessness will remain seared in our minds long after the sun shines on a bustling Boardwalk once again.

New York Times Letter: Private Charity for Parks

Thursday, November 08, 2012

To the Editor:

Re “Central Park Gets More, While the City’s Poorer Parks, Well, They Just Get By,” by Michael Powell (Gotham column, Oct. 30):

Even before the systemwide cleanup necessitated by Hurricane Sandy, budget shortfalls for New York City parks were significant. But the Central Park Conservancy and private donors like John A. Paulson do not worsen the problem; they help address it.

Mr. Paulson’s $100 million gift to Central Park will ensure that the most visited park in the city, and likely the world, can be maintained for generations to come, with minimal reliance on limited public dollars.

Moreover, this gift refocuses the city’s philanthropic organizations on parks at a critical time when many have redirected charitable dollars toward other environmental causes, even as the city slashed the Parks Department’s budget five years in a row.

Our job is not to second-guess Mr. Paulson’s generosity but to build upon this validation of urban parks by encouraging more private involvement in neighborhood parks and exploring creative ways to finance pressing needs in parks citywide without sacrificing their character.

New York, Nov. 7, 2012

The writers are, respectively, chairman and executive director of New Yorkers for Parks.

NY4P-NYCHA Partnership Kicks Off With East Harlem Youth Planting

Monday, October 29, 2012

Last Thursday, we officially launched our Daffodil Project partnership with NYCHA as Authority Chairman John B. Rhea, New York City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, NYCHA & NY4P staff, and an enthusiastic group of kids who participate in the Clinton Community Center after-school program gathered at DeWitt Clinton Houses for a daffodil planting in the East Harlem community center’s backyard and front lawn.

For the first time, we're teaming with NYCHA’s Gardening and Greening Program for five plantings at NYCHA properties in each borough. The Program is a beautification and environmental education initiative that benefits NYCHA residents and senior, community and day care centers. This fall, more than 300 NYCHA residents will plant approximately 8,000 daffodils.

“We’re thrilled to partner with Chairman Rhea and NYCHA’S Gardening & Greening Program by giving NYCHA residents in every borough the opportunity to participate in the Daffodil Project and become stewards of their public spaces,” said NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht. “The Daffodil Project remains a powerful memorial to 9/11 but also has become a symbol of civic pride and community volunteerism. Its spirit is defined by the thousands of New Yorkers who join together to make their neighborhoods, and their city, a more beautiful place to live.”

“This exciting collaboration with New Yorkers for Parks is a great opportunity to move NYCHA’s Green Agenda forward and to work to increase resident participation in making their developments and communities greener,” Rhea said. “Clinton Houses and the other NYCHA sites that will receive these generous donations of daffodil bulbs will benefit from plantings that will beautify their open spaces and serve to unite them under one common cause – the well-being of their community.”

Holly Leicht on "The Brian Lehrer Show"

Monday, October 29, 2012

NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht discussed the recent $100 million private donation to the Central Park Conservancy, current development proposals at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and other park financing issues last week on WNYC. Listen here.

New Yorkers for Parks Releases the East Harlem Open Space Index

Thursday, October 25, 2012

East Harlem residents, community groups and elected officials hoping to deliver park and open space improvements to their community now have the data to propel their advocacy.  

New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P), the citywide independent organization championing quality parks and open spaces for all New Yorkers in all neighborhoods, today released the East Harlem Open Space Index, a report designed to help neighborhood residents prioritize open space needs and advocate for strategic investments. The report was made possible in part through funding from the Aetna Foundation. Additional funding was provided by New York City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes East Harlem.

The Open Space Index (OSI) is a set of 15 New York City-specific open space and sustainability benchmarks that were developed by NY4P in 2010. The East Harlem OSI report is based on hundreds of hours of on-the-ground surveying and data analysis, including a field survey of more than 250 blocks of East Harlem. Surveyors assessed 15 categories of open space resources, including the amount of active and passive open space, walking distances to parks, permeable ground surfacing, and number of features such as recreational facilities and fields.

Click here to learn more about the OSI project and here to read the full East Harlem report.

In addition to open space analysis, the East Harlem OSI offers preliminary recommendations to guide the future of the area’s open spaces:

-Maximize public use of existing open space:  develop an open space strategy for the more than 100 acres of inaccessible New York City Housing Authority lawns, ensure that community gardens are truly public, and continue successful PlaNYC open space initiatives like the Department of Transportation’s Public Plaza Program and the Schoolyards-to-Playgrounds Program.

-Connect people to parks:  make passageways to parks safer, promote streets as connectors among parks, and expand access from East Harlem to Randall’s Island and the East River Esplanade.

“East Harlem is rich with open space potential, and there are ample opportunities to do more with existing resources,” said Holly Leicht, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks. “This report is just a starting point. We’ve provided data on how the area stacks up against citywide standards, but how this data gets used as an advocacy tool is up to those who know East Harlem best: those who live, work and play in the neighborhood.”

This is the first in a series of joint research reports conducted by NY4P and Mount Sinai School of Medicine Children’s Environmental Health Center. In a forthcoming report, the researchers from Mount Sinai will analyze the relationship between access to open space and children’s health in East Harlem. And later, NY4P will release strategies for incorporating Mount Sinai’s findings into park and open space planning, encouraging the design and maintenance of spaces that promote active recreation.

“Parks and open space play an important role in promoting the health of New Yorkers,” said Maida P. Galvez, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Preventative Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Mount Sinai is thrilled to partner with NY4P in work that can inform community level interventions targeting the current obesity epidemic.”

NY4P has also published OSI reports for the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Jackson Heights, Queens. The latter became the springboard that civic groups and elected officials used to garner political support for several recent open space improvements, including a new park and public plaza.

“Parks and open space are absolutely vital to East Harlem in order to reduce obesity and weight-related illnesses, as well as for preventing youth violence and improving quality of life in our community,” said Council Member Mark-Viverito. “New Yorkers for Parks' East Harlem Open Space Index will serve as a valuable tool in a neighborhood that has some of the highest asthma and childhood obesity rates in the city. We will use this study to improve open space, increase access to parks, and strengthen recreation programming for our residents.”

NY4P and Bay Ridge School Plant 9/11 Memorial Daffodil Garden

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

New Yorkers for Parks joined more than 100 students, along with parents and faculty from William McKinley I.S. 259, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, NYC Parks Commissioner Veronica M. White, New York City Council Members Domenic M. Recchia, Jr. and Vincent J. Gentile, and Con Edison Saturday to plant more than 3,000 daffodil bulbs in front of the Bay Ridge school Saturday – one in honor of each person who died in the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“The students at McKinley have led an inspired effort to learn about, understand and memorialize the tragic events of 9/11, and we’re honored that they’ve invited us to join them here this morning.” NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht told the crowd in a ceremony before the planting. “Today, The Daffodil Project remains a powerful memorial to 9/11 but also has become a symbol of civic pride and community unity. Its spirit is defined by the thousands of New Yorkers who join together to make their neighborhoods, and their city, a more beautiful place to live.”

The Daffodil Project was founded in 2001 as a living memorial to September 11. With nearly five million free bulbs planted citywide by more than 40,000 school kids, parks and gardening groups, civic organizations, corporate volunteers and other New Yorkers, it is one of the largest volunteer efforts in the city’s history. New Yorkers for Parks has distributed more than 170,000 bulbs in every borough for planting this fall.

Last February, the Tribute WTC Visitor Center honored McKinley for its 9/11 awareness curriculum, which has inspired students to create a nearly 700-foot mural and more than 600 original poems over the past six years in remembrance of the attacks. Now, the daffodil tribute will complement the indoor memorial.

Funding for The Daffodil Project is made possible by Con Edison, the New York City Council, Ernst & Young and the Greenacre Foundation. Con Edison volunteers helped students plant bulbs at Saturday’s event.

Her Wedding Ring Lost In a Sea of Bulbs, Volunteer Keeps On Smiling

Thursday, October 18, 2012

About halfway through the NY4P Daffodil Project bulb distribution at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, volunteer Jennifer Fragale realized she had lost her wedding ring while loading bags with bulbs.

It was a daunting environment for a search: 53,000 bulbs splayed out in bags along a curb at a teeming farmers’ market.  But though the ring didn’t turn up, Jennifer’s smile didn’t fade, and she continued to pitch in until the end of the event.

Fragale not only loves volunteering, she loves New York City. A New Jersey native, she moved to the city in 2003 and immediately fell in love with the lifestyle – and the city itself – so much that she wanted to share her enthusiasm with others.

“New York was so good to me, so I wanted others to feel the same way about it,” she said.

After she graduated from the School for Visual Arts in 2005, she began volunteering each Tuesday night at New York Cares, teaching a computer class to seniors near her Chelsea apartment.

A longtime nature-lover, she also got involved with the 300 West Block Association, where she enjoyed meeting her neighbors.

“It really felt like a hometown community in the middle of the city,” she said.

The Association connected her with the Chelsea Garden Club, where she helped spearhead an effort to plant flowers in pits along the newly installed bike lanes on 9th Avenue.  The Club’s efforts weren’t officially sanctioned by the City, but no one had been assigned to take care of the pits, so Fragale stepped in.

I was basically just going to the Union Square Greenmarket and buying flowers,” she said.

The City soon noticed and leant support to the Club’s self-appointed stewardship efforts.  With the backing of City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn and State Senator Tom Duane, the Club was awarded a grant from MillionTreesNYC in 2011.

“I’ll never forget when we were planting, and a woman came up to us and said ‘you’re adding a piece of heaven to a warzone!’ That’s something that made me realize how much the community appreciated what we were doing,” Fragale said.

The pits plantings include an array of perennials - including daffodils, which is how she became involved in NY4P’s Daffodil Project.  She joined us last year at our Brooklyn and Manhattan distributions, displaying the same upbeat spirit and willingness to pitch in that make her such a valued member of our volunteer Bulb Brigade.

“Jen was always a great help,” said Meredith Ledlie, who ran the Project for NY4P from 2010 to 2011. “She’s very positive and reliable, two great qualities for a volunteer to have.”

That Fragale joined The Daffodil Project, one of the largest volunteer efforts in the city’s history, was only fitting:  volunteerism – whether teaching seniors or beautifying her neighborhood – has been a near-constant in her life since becoming a New Yorker. It’s also fitting that she met her husband, Raymond, at a 2008 volunteer event.

Which brings us back to the wedding ring episode. It was sad for Fragale – but not calamitous.  For one, she said, Raymond lost his, too, so this evened things out. And second, it was lost while working for a cause she loves: making New York City a more beautiful place.

“If the ring ends up planted in the ground next to beautiful flowers,” she said, “that’s OK with me.”

Parks Department Rec Center Membership Falls By 45.5 Percent Among Adults and Seniors

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tucked within last Thursday’s Mayor’s Management Report (MMR) – an annual citywide progress assessment of City agencies’ performance – there’s a chart depicting a dramatic decrease in Parks Department recreation center membership rates among adults and seniors:  membership for these populations fell 45.5 percent within a single year in the wake of last year’s decision to double membership fees.  This is a far cry from the five percent decrease the Parks Department projected during the FY12 budget process when NY4P testified against the fee increase.  Memberships for kids, which remain free, didn’t change.

In our March 2011 testimony before City Council’s Parks & Recreation Committee about the FY12 Preliminary Budget, we cautioned against a proposed measure doubling adult rec center fees and more than doubling rates for seniors, citing significant drops in membership in the wake of past fee increases.  When fees were first imposed in 2003, membership dropped 10 percent, and when they were doubled in 2007, it dropped 38 percent (though it later rebounded slightly).  Our concern was that while fees for Parks Department rec centers may be less than most comparable private venues, the increases would price out lower income New Yorkers – the very New Yorkers that have the most limited alternate recreational options.

The Parks Department has endured brutal budget cuts since 2008 – cuts that we recently fought against and partially helped alleviate.  As we’ve said repeatedly, it’s unrealistic for the City to keep cutting the DPR’s budget and except the same level of service; at some point, New Yorkers will start to feel the pinch.  

Last week’s MMR suggests they’re already feeling it.

Upper Manhattan Trail Is More Than Just A Physical Connector

Friday, September 21, 2012

The long, narrow string of green begins at the northwest corner of Central Park. It snakes its way north through Morningside Park into Harlem. Just five blocks north it continues into Saint Nicholas Park, in central Harlem, then through Jackie Robinson Park, then to Highbridge Park in Washington Heights.

This is the Hike the Heights Giraffe Path, which now connects the neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan, and more than just physically. It’s a social connector, a place where once a year friends and families, along with total strangers, gather to share ideas, frustrations and beliefs. This concept of interconnectedness was hatched in the wake of 9/11, when many New Yorkers were struggling to cope with the tragedy.

That’s when Lourdes Hernandez-Cordero, then a Columbia doctoral student, focused her dissertation on the role of community mobilization in trauma recovery. Long walks through Highbridge Park helped crystallize her vision. She saw spaces for grieving, but also for happier gatherings. She saw how the parks of Upper Manhattan touched a diverse network of neighborhoods and wove them together.

“We had been thinking about environmental strategies for public health prevention,” she said. “And I thought about the problems of our neighborhoods and how no one was coming together in our public spaces to share their fears, to address these issues.”

And then it came to her: “a series of walking meetings in our public spaces.”

After completing her doctorate, Hernandez-Cordero and a group of Columbia faculty from varied disciplines began forming partnerships with organizations, institutions and residents located along the trail, including schools, civic groups and social service organizations. The idea was to conceptually link those entities to create or strengthen services and programming, and most of all, to create a dialogue – all connected by the trail.  She credits Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of the Parks Department and the City Parks Foundation, with playing an integral role in shaping those partnerships.

She named the meetings Hike the Heights, and they kicked off in 2005 with participation from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. By the second year, there were hundreds of participants from neighborhoods ranging from Manhattan Valley to Fort George, and event joined with one of Hernandez-Cordero's projects at Columbia, CLIMB (City Life Is Moving Bodies), where she was working as an assistant professor.

“The day really started to gel as a venue where different people from different walks of life came together to celebrate the neighborhoods,” said Hernandez-Cordero, who now serves as the Associate Director of Community Partnerships for City Harvest’s Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative.

The Hike is literally that – a walk - and it’s now enjoyed every June on National Trails Day with what Hernandez-Cordero calls an “empty bowl approach.”
“It’s there for you to fill with whatever you like – whatever issues you want discussed, whatever activities you want to participate in with friends and neighbors,” she said.

The event is a potluck of sorts: its website encourages participants to bring their “company, an activity, leadership, friends, funds or supplies.” It’s now annually attended by hundreds of Upper Manhattanites – seniors, children and everyone in between.
“It has become one big party,” Hernandez-Cordero said. “And when the High Bridge opens [joining Highbridge Park to a park by the same name in the Bronx], we’ll have a two-borough party!”

In the past few years, the “Giraffe” theme of the hike – named for the long, skinny trail – has taken on new meanings. Head Start, a partner, has integrated a study of giraffe family structures into its curriculum. And Hernandez-Cordero has worked with Creative Arts Workshops for Kids to develop a public children’s art component of the hike that she calls the Parade of Giraffes. The art is displayed along the trail each year during the hike.

“Each giraffe,” The Hike the Hikes website says, “will be unique and celebrate the many voices and cultures of Harlem and Washington Heights.”

As the event approaches a decade, it’s an important example of how our city's parks are much more than just places for recreation and relaxing. They’re the bedrock of New York City’s neighborhoods. And by showing how multiple parks can be woven together to link neighborhoods, as in Upper Manhattan, people like Hernandez-Cordero help realize – and harness – the potential of parks to connect communities in new ways.

Hike the Heights is a model of how looking at public spaces in a new way can make neighborhoods that once seemed far away from each other – physically, culturally, demographically – feel like close-knit family. It's all about making the connections.