Preliminary Parks Budget Offers a Few Reasons to Cheer

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

For the first time since 2008, the preliminary Parks Department budget calls for a significant increase in staff: 414 new positions, the majority of which are dedicated to parks maintenance. The proposed expense budget totals more than $344 million, up from the $337.5 million adopted last year.
At last, NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht told the City Council’s Parks & Recreation Committee last Friday, our organization’s cry that we can’t keep asking the Parks Department to do more with less – most recently expressed in those very words in our 2012 Report Card on Large Parks released last week – has been answered, at least in part.
The 414 new positions will include 252 maintenance workers, 81 Parks Enforcement Patrol Officers, 30 climbers and pruners, and 51 trades workers.
And there’s more good news in this budget: the $2 million for tree pruning that we successfully advocated to add to last year’s budget has been baselined, enabling DPR to return to a respectable 7- to 8-year pruning cycle. The total proposed amount for pruning is now $3.45 million.
For the fourth year in a row, however, there is no funding – not a single dollar – for stump removal, though stumps have become ubiquitous citywide in the wake of severe weather events like Hurricane Sandy.  As The New York Times reported last week, tens of thousands of stumps pervade the city’s sidewalks, 11,000 the result of Sandy alone. These stumps are a hazard as well as a lost opportunity to increase the urban tree canopy with new trees.  And because it is almost impossible to get stumps removed, some New Yorkers have soured on having new trees planted in front of their homes – a lose-lose prospect.
At last Friday's hearing, NY4P called on the City Council and the Administration to add $2 million to the FY14 budget for stump removal, and to baseline this amount as they have for pruning. Only by investing in the entire lifespan of a tree – from planting to maintenance to removal – will we ensure a greener city for future generations.
We also advocated for the restoration of approximately $26.5 million for 129 Seasonal Associates, 30 Playground Associates, 42 Pool Associates and 850 Job Training Participants (JTP's) - just as we have for three years running. Without funding for these positions, the Parks Department says four pools would be shuttered all summer, and all pools citywide would close two weeks early. NY4P's position is that these functions, which are core services of the Parks Department, should be baselined in DPR's budget rather than being subject to the annual budget dance between the Administration and the Council.
For the first time since 2008, the preliminary budget for the Parks Department looks promising. But NY4P will continue to push for the final FY14 budget to go even further, by restoring funding for critical summer staff and JTP positions and adding $2 million for the last step in responsible tree care: stump removal.

In Middle Village, Advocate Watches Over Fields He Once Played On

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Bob Holden wasn’t the biggest or fastest player on his 1965 little league team. But when the ice cream man behind home plate in Juniper Valley Park yelled out an offer of a free cone for a home run, Holden dug in and socked a frozen rope over the shortstop’s head. The next thing he knew, he was sliding into home, safe, and through the cloud of dirt emerged a man in white, his outstretched hand holding the coveted cone.

Today, Holden watches this generation's little leaguers on those same fields from the seat of his tractor, which he uses every two days to keep the fields game ready.

“The fresh grass, it just smells great,” he said. “After I mow the fields I just sit there for a half hour, maybe more. It’s so peaceful. You look at these green gems, and it’s just satisfying. And then you see the kids run out there, and it just doesn’t get any better.”

Between his post as President of the Juniper Valley Civic Association, his seat on Queens Community Board 5, his job and his family life, it’s a wonder Holden has time to provide such impeccable care and oversight of the fields – and, for that matter, the entire park, which scored a 98, the highest grade in NY4P’s 2012 Report Card on Large Parks. The park’s enormously popular bocce courts, our surveyors found, were so clean that one park visitor joked he would eat off them.

The score is due in no small part to Holden’s leadership and volunteer stewardship in the park and the community.

“Bob just does an amazing, amazing amount of work for the community,” said Tony Nunziato, a close friend. “On weekends, this guy puts on that little straw hat and mows acres of grass. He’s up at 2, 3 in the morning slumped over the computer, working on the [Civic Association] magazine. After a storm, like the microburst last year, who’s the first person in the park making sure things are OK, before any elected officials or City workers? It’s Bob. He’s the microburst!  He’s constantly making sure everything is done for the benefit of the community.”

Holden’s work for the park really took off during the Giuliani administration, in the late 90s, when he told then-Council Member Thomas Ognibene about the poor condition of Juniper’s three upper baseball fields. Holden, who is a graphic designer and loves baseball, remembers nights sitting at his dining room table, drawing sketches of what he hoped the fields would look like. Eventually, with Ognibene’s help, Holden presented his vision to the Deputy Mayor. It wasn’t long before then-Parks Commissioner Henry Stern agreed to rehab the fields.

“It was a battle, a major undertaking,” Holden said. “We said if you build them the way we want them, we’ll take care of them. And we still do today.”

He added how pleased he is, in general, with the Parks Department’s upkeep of the rest of the park.

The field project was the first in a string of capital projects in the park, including a refurbished hockey rink, playground, gardens, a new track and that spotless bocce court.

Holden regularly leads clean-ups in every section of the park and has built the Civic Association into a venerable, machine-like force of park and community stewarship. Even the association's magazine, the Juniper Berry, has become a tool to advocate on behalf of the park.

“We use the magazine to keep elected officials and the Parks Department on their toes,” he said. “For example, we’ve had an issue with off-leash dogs on the fields, especially at night. So last week, we put a picture of dogs running freely on the fields and did a feature on the problem. Within a day, the Department had PEP [Police Enforcement Patrol] officers stationed there.”

Holden has also made a big impact in Middle Village beyond the Juniper Park boundaries. He and Nunziato led a campaign for more than 10 years to transform the former Elmhurst gas tank site into a park, though it had been slated to become a Home Depot. Thanks to their persistence, Mayor Bloomberg eventually sided with the community, and a 6.5-acre park opened in May 2011.

“Bob and I met over that campaign, and we’ve been friends ever since, “Nunziato said. “And there’s no more loyal guy. He’s a foul-weather friend.”

Holden, 61, is showing no signs of letting up in his tireless work for the community. He is president of the little league he once played in, and he understands the importance of neighbors vigilantly overseeing care of their beloved parks.

“I’ve realized that as the park goes, so goes the neighborhood,” he said. “It impacts how people living nearby take care of their own personal property.”

And while humble – “You can never do nothing for the guy,” Nunziato said – Holden acknowledges his group’s success. He says it’s a replicable model for park stewardship across the city.

“The keys,” he said, “are to publicize your work, share it with elected officials and the City. Through that, you can build your volunteer base. Even with the smallest successes, you can say, ‘See, I made a difference.’ Build on those successes.”

Holden has done that, in Juniper Valley Park, and in all facets of his life. Just like his ice-cream-induced slide into home plate, he vividly recalls his first dates with his future wife.

“She grew up down the street from me,” he said. “We’d sit on park benches and stroll through the park. We’re still doing that.”

New Yorkers for Parks Releases 2012 Report Card on Large Parks

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The good news: New York City’s large parks average a B+ for maintenance, up from a B a year earlier. The bad news: old problems keep popping up in new places.

The 2012 Report Card on Large Parks, released today by New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P), revisits maintenance conditions of the 43 parks between 20 and 500 acres surveyed in the organization’s 2011 Report Card. Eighty-eight percent of parks scored in the A or B range, three scored in the C range and one earned a D. This is an improvement from the 2011 report, in which 80 percent of parks scored an A or B, and one park received a failing grade.

“This is encouraging news,” said Holly Leicht, Executive Director of NY4P, an independent citywide parks and open space advocacy group. “However, when you scratch below the surface, it’s clear that the Parks Department has been ensnared in a property management version of “Whac-A-Mole”: they fix one problem, and another emerges elsewhere.  The pie just isn’t big enough.”

The grades are based on scores of 11 key features of large parksFor every feature in the survey – even those that increased on average citywide from 2010 to 2012 – the performance varied considerably from park to park. For example, while the citywide drinking fountain average rose from 64 in 2010 to 75 in 2012, there were 17 parks in which the condition of drinking fountains in 2012 was inferior to the condition in 2010. The overall park experience, then, improved on average – but specific problems in many parks got worse.

NY4P’s Report Card series, launched in 2003, is the only independent comparative survey of park maintenance across all five boroughs. NY4P Report Cards have analyzed conditions of parks, playgrounds, turf fields, and beaches, and offer system-wide suggestions that are routinely used by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in targeting maintenance investment and identifying citywide needs.

The new report offers recommendations based on three cycles of maintenance:

•             Continuous Stewardship: Parks Department staff must work in tandem with volunteer networks to address day-to-day operations and maintenance needs such as trash pickup, weeding and beautification. Skilled technicians are necessary to fix broken drinking fountains, prune trees and remove stumps.

•             Equipment Replacement:  It’s essential that the Parks Department have the funds to plan ongoing equipment and infrastructure replacement – such as safety surfacing and turf field replacement, and pathway repaving– as a necessary supplement to day-to-day maintenance.

•             Broader Urban Planning:  The City must undertake long-term park planning – and broader urban planning – to ensure the future integrity of our waterways, shorelines, wetlands, roads and bike paths, public transit, housing, and indeed, the city itself.

Hurricane Sandy occurred after field work for the report was complete, and NY4P staff revisited over half of the parks to assess storm damage, as summarized in the report. Fallen trees and downed tree limbs were the most pervasive indications of storm damage in large parks, and the report calls for increased funding for tree care. While those funds increased in FY2013 and remain stable in the proposed FY2014 budget, they are significantly lower than in 2008.

Like much of NY4P’s research, issuing this report is just the first step in advocating for improvements in New York City’s large parks. Outreach to communities with the lowest-scoring parks and the Parks Department is already underway.

“I commend New Yorkers for Parks on this valuable inventory of one our city’s most important public resources," said New York City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito. “It’s critical that we stay committed to strengthening our parks, especially in this time of austerity and budget cuts. Healthier parks mean a healthier New York.

“Despite improved scores, the bottom line is that the Parks Department hasn’t had sufficient resources to keep up with the maintenance demands of 29,000 acres of parkland,” Leicht said. “We are gratified that the City’s preliminary FY2014 budget includes over 400 new maintenance positions for the Parks Department.  Quite simply, New York’s park system can’t be maintained at the high level we’ve come to expect over the past two decades unless the Department has sufficient staffing.” 

East Harlem Open Space Advocate Lets Kids Chart Their Own Course

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The key to Mac Levine’s success isn’t that she knows what’s best for the children of East Harlem. It’s that she knows how to get them to tell her what’s best for themselves.

She doesn’t dictate to children of the Washington Houses what to plant in their 15,000-square foot garden – they decide. In fact, they are the ones who decided they wanted the garden in the first place.

That’s a lesson she learned in 2007, when there was little interest in the urban youth hiking program she tried to organize.
“I quickly realized that if they were going to have ownership, they were going to have to be the primary decision-makers,” she said.

Levine’s desire to work with children began when she was a teenage volunteer at Coalition for the Homeless.

“There was a little girl in the program, couldn’t have been more than 6-years-old. Every day her mom filled her milk bottle with alcohol. She would tell her ‘mom, I need milk!’ I kind of lost it. I knew then that I was going to start a nonprofit.”

When her hiking program didn't take off, Levine spent hours in meetings at community centers and settlement houses throughout Upper Manhattan, where she knew obesity and poverty rates were high. The most common suggestion: work with the Union Settlement Association in East Harlem.

She founded Concrete Safaris and formed a partnership with the Settlement, a mainstay in the community for more than a century, and zeroed in on public housing developments, most of which are far from sizable, accessible parkland.

“These are neighborhoods where a lot of people don’t spend much time outside,” she said. “In so many of the developments, there’s all this green, but it’s fenced off.”

Concrete Safaris took off in earnest in 2008, growing to more than 300 children, aged 7 to 11, by the end of the year. Since then, she has expanded her network to include several schools in the area, along with the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center and the Association to Benefit Children. The program now works with P.S. 102 five days a week and has served more than 3,200 children since its inception.

It was the children that drove the program’s growth. Levine remembers a nine-year-old organizing a survey for her peers to determine the after-school and summer program’s curriculum, which today also includes biking, swimming and public speaking.

Perhaps few elements of the job bring Levine greater satisfaction than when a child no older than 11 learns a gardening curriculum well enough to teach it to classmates – and sometimes even to adult volunteers.

Learning from a peer, she says, helps get them more engaged, and quickly.

“When you watch a kid go from knowing nothing to running up to you or their parents with excitement because they are excelling, to me that’s perhaps the most rewarding part of my job.”

This model is now well-known at the Washington Houses, where, with the support of the New York City Housing Authority’s Garden and Greening Program, the garden flourishes with a migratory butterfly space and a wide variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables – all selected by the children.

The garden is available to surrounding residents and has even adapted to shifting demographics in the neighborhood. As more Chinese residents move into the area, the children have introduced Chinese cabbage and four varieties of hot peppers into the mix.

That organic adaptation reflects the tailored approach Concrete Safaris takes in different locations. For example, Levine is able to recruit children more informally and spontaneously at Jefferson Houses, a bustling community with vibrant street life, than at Washington Houses, where there is less mingling in common spaces.

“What’s good for one development – even though the issues are the same – might not necessarily be good for the other,” she said. “Each location we go to needs to be approached in a different way.”

It’s with this sort of thoughtful approach that Levine is building the program at Jefferson, where children are moving ahead with their own garden, approved last year. 

Local leaders and experts say Levine has done a great deal to transform the way hundreds of children think about their open spaces.

“Concrete Safaris highlights how existing open space, in this case NYCHA grounds, can be optimally used to provide fun and educational programs for inner city children right in their backyard,” said Maida Galvez, an Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “I can't say enough good things about what she is doing for East Harlem children.”

Galvez is currently working on a joint research project with NY4P that examines the relationship between access to open space and children’s health in East Harlem. The first report of the project, the East Harlem Open Space Index, was released by NY4P last fall.
In a forthcoming report, Mount Sinai researchers will analyze the relationship between East Harlem's open space resources and the health and obesity rates of 225 neighborhood children. NY4P hopes to identify strategies for incorporating the study's findings into actual park and open space planning, encouraging design of spaces that promotes active recreation.

Levine is doing her part to address one of the recommendations of last fall’s report – maximize public use of existing open space, including within Housing Authority developments. We’re hopeful that other local stakeholders, armed with our research, will join that push.
If funding were available, Levine would consider expanding her program to other parts of the city. But right now her focus remains East Harlem, where she sees the community’s open space resources – however unconventional – as a true lifeline. And she’s developed a strong network of volunteers who will, true to the Concrete Safaris model, chart their own course.

Rec Center Fees to Shift, But Not Enough

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Parks Department’s 35 recreation centers play a critical role in the lives of New Yorkers across the city, particularly those who can’t afford private gym memberships. 

That’s why we were alarmed to learn that rec center memberships among adults and seniors plummeted 45.5 percent between 2011 and 2012 – a drop that followed a decision by the Parks Department to double membership fees for adults and more than double fees for seniors in response to a mandated citywide budget reduction. As we warned in 2011, this is a familiar pattern – 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). This time, the increases did not even translate into more revenue for the City.  In fact, because of the dramatic drop in memberships, rec centers brought in less money than the previous year.

Fees may still be less than most private venues, but the increases price out lower income New Yorkers – the very New Yorkers with the fewest alternatives to public rec centers.  Thirty percent of Bronx residents alone – more than 400,000 people – are living at or below the poverty rate of $23,021 per year for a family of four. The annual fair market rent of a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx is $17,688.  That leaves little more than $5,000 a year to cover all other expenses, from shoes, to school books, to food, to transportation. For these families, that extra $50 a year is simply prohibitive.

Late last month at a City Council Parks Committee hearing, Parks Commissioner Veronica White announced a new $25 dollar annual membership for 18- to 24-year-olds – a group that declined by 55 percent over the past two years.  Commissioner White noted that the leap from a free kid’s membership for a 17-year-old to a full $150 adult membership for an 18-year-old was onerous, and she is hopeful that the new age category and fee will boost young adult membership significantly.  DPR plans to move forward with the process to approve the new fee category, with the goal of putting it into effect July 1st.

This new membership category is a good first step toward bringing New Yorkers back to their rec centers, but NY4P remains concerned that many older adults and seniors still can’t afford the increased fees and will not renew their memberships.  As Council Member Julissa Ferreras of Queens noted at the hearing, there are scores of families in her district for whom $300 for two adults is not affordable.  A representative of the Union Settlement Association in East Harlem voiced similar concerns about seniors in that neighborhood.  

More needs to be done to address the impact of fee increases on low-income adults and seniors.  We look forward to continuing the dialogue we started almost two years ago with the Parks Department about the best way to ensure that the City’s rec centers remain a valuable – and viable – resource for all New Yorkers in all neighborhoods.

Proposed USTA Expansion Leaves Park and Neighbors in the Lurch

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

In the world of Grand Slam tennis, there is constant pressure on host sites to build bigger and better facilities – an arms race of sparkling, state-of-the-art grandstands. That’s why the USTA has proposed a $500 million expansion of its Queens-based 42-acre Billie Jean King National Tennis Center complex, including the replacement of the 10,000-seat Armstrong with a 15,000-seat stadium, wider pedestrian paths, and a sleek new 8,000-seat grandstand on the campus’ southwest corner.

What complicates this proposed expansion is that the complex, which hosts the U.S. Open for several weeks each summer, is located on mapped parkland within the confines of Flushing Meadows Corona Park (FMCP), the largest park in New York’s largest borough. It’s among the city's most heavily used public spaces, especially by residents of surrounding, open space-starved communities like Corona, Flushing, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights.

Park-users will tell you what a critical public resource FMCP is for Queens, both as a recreational mecca as well as a gathering place for family picnics and barbecues. But you'll also hear frustration about the park's endemic maintenance woes, from flooding and drainage problems to a constant battle against litter.

Given these challenges and the park's international exposure as the backdrop for the U.S. Open, one might expect the USTA to be an avid steward of FMCP. But historically there has been little relationship between the tennis complex and the park. As public review of the expansion proposal officially gets underway, NY4P is calling upon the USTA to invest in  the future of FMCP as it seeks to increase its footprint in and impact on this critical park.

The proposal calls for about 7/10 of an acre of parkland to be alienated, as well as an increase in the USTA's leasehold, the construction of a 2-story parking garage, and a new access road through passive open space.  The USTA and the City maintain that the parkland that would be alienated does not need to be replaced because the USTA campus is “public” 11 months of the year. But the tennis courts, for which the USTA charges $40-$66 an hour during peak times, are not comparably priced with other Parks Department tennis courts and are too costly for much of the surrounding population. Though the Center holds occasional clinics with camps and schools, local outreach has been lacking, according to public officials and community leaders.

Further, while the potential lost acreage is relatively small, sanctioning parkland alienation without acre-for-acre replacement is a slippery slope. If an expensive pay-to-play tennis facility that contributes no annual funding to the park is deemed "public," where is the line drawn to protect city parkland from privatization?  Right now, USTA's annual rent payment – which wouldn’t increase after the expansion – goes entirely to the City’s general fund, not the park.

It’s time for the USTA – which, according to a recent Crain’s review, reported a $17 million surplus in 2010 – to commit to a significant, long-term investment in and partnership with Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This means not just funding one-time capital projects to sweeten the pot during the public review of its expansion proposal; this means an ongoing annual contribution to the park's maintenance and active participation in a new nonprofit dedicated to the park, a commitment to cease using park lawns for parking during the U.S. Open, and either replacement of the parkland it proposes to alienate or a redefined relationship with park-users and the surrounding community to make the tennis complex a truly public use.

The USTA says it must upgrade and expand if the U.S. Open is to remain competitive and prestigious among the great tennis tournaments of the world. For that to happen, the USTA will need to adjust its outlook from the global tennis stage to the local community. Being a better tenant to Flushing Meadows Corona Park – and a better neighbor to those who cherish it most – is the critical first step.

In Memoriam: Edward (Kerry) Sullivan, Staten Island Environmental Steward

Friday, January 18, 2013

Staten Island’s vast natural environment – its miles of beaches, its woodlands and wetlands, its sprawling parks and dynamic marine animal habitats– was Kerry Sullivan’s world.

Sullivan, who passed away on December 21 at the age of 55, lived on the Island nearly his entire life. He grew up in Tompkinsville and loved the water and the land around it. He graduated from the Harry Lundberg School of Seamanship in 1978 and worked aboard oil rig vessels and tugboats throughout the 1980s.

But it wasn’t until his return to the Island in the early 1990s that he truly created his legacy of environmental stewardship and advocacy. For 20 years, there was hardly a park or shoreline cleanup, hardly a rally or outreach campaign that didn’t involve Sullivan. And there was hardly a Staten Island environmental group he wasn’t in some way associated with.  Just a sampling: the Coalition for South Beach Pond Park Preserve, Protectors off Pine Oak Woods, the Fisherman’s Conservation Association, Midland Beach Sportsman’s Club, New York/New Jersey Baykeepers, Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers, Clean Ocean Action and the Crescent Beach Civic Association.

“If he didn’t know you, he’d get to know you,” said Frank Filatro, a longtime friend.

His work spanned the Island – from organizing planning sessions for Lemon Creek and a fishing pier in Midland Beach, to rallying to protect Mariners Marsh Park, to cleaning up Silver Lake and Brady’s Pond parks. He also penned an environmental and fishing column for the Staten Island Register.

But perhaps the work he loved most was as Executive Director of the Natural Resources Protective Association (NRPA), a volunteer group, for which, among many other achievements, he founded an environmental youth corps.

“He worked tirelessly for waterfront access and protection,” said Jim Scarcella, a friend and fellow NRPA member. “That was really his passion.”

Sullivan was also a prolific Daffodil Project participant, for which NY4P honored him in 2008. That year alone, he planted more than 3,000 bulbs on the Island in several parks – and beyond.

“I remember him grabbing his extra bulbs – like 200 or so – and planting them right along the expressway. Right along 278! He just planted them all over, wherever he could,” Scarcella said.

Through all his varied work, his defining characteristics were generosity, selflessness and a tireless adventurism, friends said.

“Kerry was the guy at hearings who called it out if he saw people get preferential treatment,” Scarcella said. “He had a lot of fire in him.”

Later in his life, that sense of adventure, and also generosity, took Sullivan on trips to Africa, Southeast Asia and the Amazon. He and a group of friends, including Filatro, took an annual trip to Peru, where he and his wife, Victoria, helped start an orphanage, and later a school, for Incan children in the Urubama Valley, near Cusco.

“I met Kerry on a trip to Peru, and we became like brothers,’ Filatro said. “He had the same spirit on those trips as he did back home – always a fighter, never taking the credit.”

That fighting spirit prevailed to the end, as Sullivan battled cancer.

Just last year, as his illness worsened, his spirit and love of the marine environment carried him through a final adventure, to Florida, where he participated in a dolphin swim for cancer patients.

Now, inspired by his legacy, members of Staten Island's passionate environmental community pick up where Sullivan left off.

“He’s still doing it from upstairs, I know that,” Scarcella said.

Queensbridge Park Advocate Needs No Introduction

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

At the Queensbridge Houses, everyone knows Ms. McQueen.

“It’s true,” she said with a laugh. “How could they not? I’ve been here so long.”

Since 1950, in fact. And in the past 15 years, she's become quite a fixture in Queensbridge Park.

“It was sort of a disaster before then,” she said. “The surrounding community, the children – they couldn’t use it.”

Around 2000, she began to organize volunteer cleanups in the park, which drew the attention of the Queensbridge Parks Department administrator. The Department asked whether she’d be interested in starting a volunteer group to help maintain the space. She agreed, and the Friends of Queensbridge Park was born.

“My main interest from the beginning was the children,” she said. “So the first thing we did was try to raise money for youth events."

Those efforts were wildly successful. She secured funding from several local elected officials, primarily Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan. Today, McQueen’s group puts on three puppet shows every summer, along with a youth festival. McQueen says more than 200 children regularly attend her events.

“And yes, they all know me,” she said, laughing again.

McQueen isn’t just a fixture in Queensbridge, though.

“Everyone in this area who’s involved with parks knows her,” said Katie Ellman, the President of Greenshores NYC, a waterfront park advocacy group in Long Island City and Astoria. “Her influence is multigenerational.”

As for her formal title?

“Everyone just calls her Ms. McQueen – there’s just so much respect for her,” Ellman said.

Friends of Queensbridge is also active with park cleanups and plantings, and helps maintain order in the park.

“It’s safe in the park now, not like before,” McQueen said. “The difference is people know now that there’s always someone taking stock of what they’re doing, there are always eyes.”

Today, when McQueen surveys the park on a summer afternoon, she sees hordes of barbecuers and children playing and laughing, in a safe, friendly environment.

"I think that has affected the entire community – especially the children.”

For McQueen, it’s obvious which demographic she holds most dear. But she has clearly touched others as well.

“She’s truly inspirational, a mentor and role model to me personally,” Ellman said. “Whenever things don’t go my way or I have a bad day at work, I think of Ms. McQueen. If she can do it, then I can too. It always helps.”

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.