Meet A New Yorker for Parks: Heather Butts

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Every year NY4P honors the open space stewards from every borough that make the Daffodil Project such as success. This year’s Staten Island honoree is Heather Butts, co-founder of H.E.A.L.T.H. for Youths, an organization dedicated to helping young students in New York equip themselves for life after high school, with an emphasis on disadvantaged youth.

One of the ways they engage young people is through community service events such as planting NY4P Daffodil Project bulbs. Heather has witnessed the positive impact this has on young people’s health and education, and on police-community relations. H.E.A.L.T.H. is a great example of how planting daffodils and watching them grow affects communities in far-reaching ways.

H.E.A.L.T.H. began community service events through a tree stewardship program with Staten Island Council Member Deborah Rose, which including weeding and gardening in tree pits. From there they began programming with police officers and young people, planting daffodils in the open space on precinct grounds in Staten Island and Brooklyn. Most recently they’ve partnered with GreenThumb to create a garden in Skyline Park in Staten Island.

“Most of our young people had no access to gardens, or didn’t know they had access,” Heather explains. “A lot had no exposure to healthy foods coming straight out of the ground.” They partnered with GreenThumb to create a garden in Skyline Playground in Staten Island, with their first harvest in fall 2015. “To see the look on young faces the first time they pull a beet out of the ground, and see food that isn’t processed – it’s overwhelming to them. A lot live in areas that are close to being food deserts. They don’t relate to fresh produce.”

One of Heather’s most poignant experiences is working with young people at the 120th Precinct in Staten Island, where they planted the most daffodils. “Some of our students are court-involved and have had dealings with officers. Sometimes these are the very same officers that they garden with a few days later. We get to see this relationships grow and build in a way that wouldn't’t otherwise. Gardening is very non-threatening; it’s a very peaceful endeavor. Our students will say things like, ‘I haven’t really had any relationship with police officers, and this gives me a chance to do it in a way that’s positive.”

Heather has witnessed the relationship of their students to the local officers change in a dramatic way. “At the 120th Precinct, the kids are now so comfortable that they just walk right in. To see a black kid walk in like it’s his school or his house, and strike up a friendly conversation with the officers, it makes your mouth drop on the floor a bit.”

The precinct garden faces the ferry landing, and is one of the first things people see when they’re leaving the terminal. Before they started working there it was just dirt. Heather has witnessed that every year the daffodils transform the space, and make it more welcoming. “We get comments all the time about how beautiful it is. And since we have the H.E.A.L.T.H. for Youths sign there, people are getting to know us.”

Going forward, Heather is expanding their work to include the intersection of open space with culture, arts, and literacy, an opportunity she sees as “limitless.” They’ve worked with New York Restoration Project in their Riley-Levin Children’s Garden in Inwood, where they hosted a student play and a spoken word event. They’ve put up little free libraries in 5 locations, and are hosting art shows, read-alouds, chamber music, and the like. They’re hosting a recipe swap day, where students will bring in their healthy food recipes and submit them to Michelle Obama’s MyPlate program. Through their programming they hope to make the parks and gardens more accessible and relatable for young people.

When asked if she has any input for other folks interested in engaging youth and students in open space stewardship, she offers three pieces advice: First, have an honest conversation with the young people you’re working with about what they’re interested in, and be open to it. Don't assume that your interests will be the same. Second, be creative, and figure out ways to positively engage with youth. Third, tie what you’re doing to something that’s related to their academic life. It helps keep them engaged in their learning.

In addition to the many hours of work Heather dedicates to HEALTH for Youths, she is also a professor at Columbia University, and a Regulatory Specialist with their Medical Center. She holds four degrees, including a Juris Doctor from St. John’s University, and a Master of Public Health from Columbia. Because of her dedication to open space and young people, we are very proud to honor her at this year’s Daffodil Breakfast.

NY4P Testifies on the Preliminary Parks Budget

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Today NY4P advocated for a better parks budget in our testimony to the New York City Council Committee on Parks and Recreation at their hearing on the fiscal year 2017 preliminary budget. While we are encouraged by the Parks Department's efforts at becoming more efficient, innovative, resourceful and caring, the department still isn’t fully funded. The city cannot care for our parks if the department doesn’t have sufficient resources. Our testimony asks for an improved expense budget that will create jobs and support organizations empowering local-level stewardship. We ask for a capital budget that will continue to work toward equity in our parks system by funding improvements in “anchor” parks in low-income communities, along with other funding that will allow the department to be more adept at responding to the needs of parks-users. Read and download our full testimony here.

How's Your Park, NYC? Citywide Meeting

Friday, February 26, 2016

After great meetings in each borough, NY4P is bringing How’s Your Park, NYC? citywide! Each borough had a unique story, but shared an overarching theme – lack of funding.  At this meeting we’ll present our draft city budget recommendations, based on what Mayor de Blasio released in his preliminary budget. With the input of attendees we’ll identify and prioritize budget requests that we’d like to see addressed in the final city budget in June. Together we’ll build a strong, unified voice for all open space in NYC! Learn more and register here.

In Memoriam: Anthony Marraccini: Seaside Wildlife Nature Park, Staten Island

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Anthony Marraccini was a parks advocate, community leader, entrepreneur, World War II veteran, and the uncle of NY4P’s Senior Development Associate, Julia Marra. Like Julia, he was a lifelong Staten Islander.

Julia remembers her uncle Tony as someone who was always offering her and other members of his family entrepreneurial advice. “He was always trying to get people to be really involved,” Julia recalls. “He was trying to get people to think of new ideas, and actually carry them out the way he did with the park.”

“The park” is the Seaside Wildlife Nature Park, which Anthony created from an abandoned, trash-filled lot in Staten Island. Located on the waterfront with views of the Great Kills Harbor, it’s not hard to imagine the potential Anthony saw in the neglected land.

In 1994 Anthony founded Turnaround Friends Inc., an organization whose website describes an ambitious and community-focused mission:  

Turnaround Friends Inc. is a nonprofit organization whose fundamental mission is to identify degraded or abandoned properties and to work cooperatively with others to form a "turnaround" plan to transform the negative conditions into a source of pride and an asset to the community. The goal and reasoning behind the mission is that a community’s social, environmental and economic conditions are significantly improved if its surroundings are enhanced with beauty, order and quality of life.

With TFI, Anthony initiated the process of turning the neglected land it into usable space. He rallied the community, organized volunteers, provided supplies and oversaw the entire process.

In 2008, after many years of hard work, the now clean and usable space became the Seaside Wildlife Nature Park, a part of the New York City parks system. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe called it “one of the most beautiful parks in the City of New York.”

In June of 2015 the park was voted the best playground in Staten Island by readers of the SI Advance. Nicknamed “Pirate Park” for the large pirate ship replica, it also includes a Staten Island Ferry replica, water features and a sandbox. The park is landscaped with native seaside and salt marsh plants, and borders are edged with natural wood rails and nautical themed fences.

In addition to preserving open space and community-building, Anthony devoted many years during his retirement volunteering with the SCORE Association on Staten Island. As a retired business executive he mentored new and established small businesses, helping others to follow their dreams. In 2013 he received special recognition at the Staten Island NFP Association Community Service Awards program, recognizing leaders in Staten Island’s not-for-profit community.

Anthony passed away in December of 2015. He is survived by four children and eight grandchildren, and by his beautiful park. 

Tupper Thomas to Retire from NY4P

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

On February 2nd, 2016, Tupper Thomas, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks, announced her intention to retire in the coming months. She believes that finding the "perfect" Executive Director to replace her is her last key priority here, and is working with the NY4P board to recruit the best person to take on the position. Read her letter, below, to learn about her work with NY4P, and what she sees as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing New York City parks and open space going forward.

Dear Friends,

Two years ago, I came out of retirement to take on the Executive Director role at New Yorkers for Parks.  As many of you know, I agreed to lead the organization for a finite period of time, so that we might maintain the momentum of this important – in fact essential – civic organization.  I’m very proud of the work we have accomplished these past two years, and I am grateful for our staffs who have worked tirelessly to fight with me for our city’s parks and open spaces.

Now I believe the time has come to think about the long-term future of NY4P, and with that, to find a great leader to capably take the organization into its next chapter.  While I intend to retire in the coming months, I believe that identifying the perfect Executive Director is the last key priority to complete my tenure here.  Thus, I will be very involved in making sure that we recruit the best person to continue the great work that has become the hallmark of our brand.

The Board and I have created a Search Committee, and we have begun to discuss the ideal characteristics that we should be seeking in a leader. We will soon be posting a description of the position and role, and encourage you to engage with us as we look for our next leader.

We have laid the ground work – through solid and credible research, effective advocacy, and broad-based community-building – to have even greater impact on the future direction of New York City.  Amid a stream of special interests and other considerations, it is a constant battle to make the case that parks and open space are critical for a thriving urban environment.  The reason I took the job is the same reason we must sustain our efforts: this organization is the only voice for the 100% of New Yorkers who use and benefit from our parks and open spaces across all five boroughs.

The city is changing.  Increased density and a housing crisis puts pressure on our few public spaces.  However, if we want to remain the best city in the world – attracting talent, ensuring safety and health, and providing a high quality of life – we have to prioritize open space. To meet the challenges of inequality, we must ensure that all parks in all neighborhoods are great! I think we have a rare opportunity to not only make that case stronger than it has ever been made before, but also to garner the public will to do something about it.  I’m honored that I will always be a part of the legacy of this great institution, and I’m excited to be in a position to help shape its future.

Thank you, as always, for all of your support and encouragement.



NY4P Op-Ed in Daily News: We Need Answers to City's Carriage Horse Proposal

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Today the Daily News published an op-ed by Tupper Thomas outlining the reasons why the mayor and the City Council's proposal to move carriage horses into Central Park requires a more thoughtful review by the city. The citizens of New York need to be given the opportunity to ask questions and voice their concerns about how this will impact "the most important open space in New York City, and the grandmother of all city parks in the United States." Read the entire op-ed here.

Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Michael Marino

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

“I feel most proud and excited when I see our diverse community coming together in our park, working toward a common goal. Our unofficial motto is, ‘Even if you’ve only got 20 minutes, you can help your park.’”

Michael Marino had no intention of starting a friends group when he decided that something needed to be done for his neighborhood park, but within the span of one month that’s just what happened. He had his first meeting with park officials and advocates in September of 2014, and two months later Corlears Hook Park had its first community park clean-up, followed by another impromptu day of raking leaves over 2014’s Thanksgiving weekend. Now he has engaged over 100 local community members, received over $6000 in grants, raised over $2000 through online fundraising, and is in the process of creating a more formalized leadership for Friends of Corlears Hook Park. And it all started because of foster dogs.

A long-time New Yorker, Michael moved next to Corlears Hook Park in the Lower East Side in 2012. When he began fostering dogs a year later, he started going to the park almost every day.  Corlears Hook Park’s dog runs – the only ones available south of Tompkins Square Park on the east side – were in poor condition.

“The community couldn’t really use them,” he recalls. “Both runs were very dirty, dirt and mud would get on the dogs. The runs would flood when it rained, the gates weren’t secure, and instead of fencing the small dog run only had chicken wire.”

That’s also when he began to notice other problems. Eight lamps were out, making the park feel unsafe and uninviting at night. The turf field was frequently used for baseball and soccer games, but the comfort station hadn’t been open for almost two decades. Kids and sometimes even adults were going to the bathroom in the bushes. “That’s when I really felt that something had to be done,” he explains.

Michael contacted State Senator Daniel Squadron’s office to find out if there were any friends groups active in the park. None existed, but the senator’s office offered to help him start one. They organized a call with Partnerships for Parks coordinator Kirsti Bambridge and other friends groups to give him guidance on how to get his budding organization off the ground. The recently-created NYC Bark Club had been working with the park manager on fixing up the dog runs, so Michael also began working with them.

He went on a walk-through of the park with the Corlears Hook park manager, his Partnerships for Parks Coordinator, concerned community members, and Community Board 3 manager Susan Stetzer, and they came up with a list of priority projects for the park.

Early successes were small but noticeable. The broken street lamps were fixed and new trees were planted to replace the dozens lost due to Hurricane Sandy. The first few clean-up events drew small numbers at first, but people’s enthusiasm for the projects demonstrated both the necessity of this work and the park’s untapped potential.

Friends of Corlears Hook Park (FoCHP) continued to host ‘It’s My ParkDay’ events throughout 2015. A spring event combined park clean-up with family-fun activities such as games, face painting, and bubble experiments. For weeks after that event parents would stop Michael on the street and ask when they were having another. In early fall, FoCHP received daffodil bulbs from New Yorkers for Parks, and planted them with help from NY4P and volunteers from the Nathan Cummings Foundation. They also partnered with CITYarts, BlackRock, Henry Street Settlement Expanded Horizons College Success Program, and the Chinatown YMCA at Two Bridges Community Center to scrape down and repaint a peeling retaining wall around the park’s playground. Drawing from local Girl Scout troops and volunteer organizations at New York City high schools and colleges, FoCHP hosted their most successful event yet.  Over 80 volunteers showing up to help plant new garden beds at all of the park’s entryways.

Sometimes people stumble upon FoCHP events, turning an impromptu moment of interest and inspiration into engaging work. Michael remembers when an elderly woman walking through the park during a clean-up day approached a volunteer trimming rose bushes. “The woman didn’t speak much English, but the volunteer handed her the pruning shears and showed her how to trim down the branches and clip a few roses. (She) smiled from ear to ear.”

In addition to doing hands-on work in the park, Michael works with advocacy organizations and elected officials to get much-needed funding for the park. Guided by other friends groups and Partnerships for Parks, he had a meeting with Council Member Rosie Mendez and managed to get $250,000 to refurbish of the dog runs. He also worked with the Parks Department and elected officials to get the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to commit money towards fixing and reopening the comfort station. Until that money comes through they’re using a port-a-potty. “It finally happened,” he explains, “after I complained enough and showed the Parks Department enough disgusting photos.”

That’s not the only time Michael’s tenacity paid off. Michael describes the recent process he went through to get funding for refurbishment of the playground, water feature, and basketball court in the park onto Community Board 3’s budget priority list. “I had to go to three different community board meetings where I made the same pitch and said the same thing every time. And I wondered if it was really worth it. But then at the last meeting, I was one of the only parks group representatives there, and I think that’s why I was able to keep my project high on the priority list to hopefully qualify for funding. ”

The biggest frustration of the whole process has been dealing with slow-moving bureaucracy of government, something all advocates can relate to. “The Parks Department is so underfunded and staff is stretched so thin that decision making takes a lot longer than you want. Because we are an all-volunteer group, with full-time jobs, sometimes we can’t wait for a week or two weeks to get an answer.”

Going forward, Michael wants to bring more active programming to the park. Most of the buildings in the neighborhoods have courtyards and gardens, and residents see those as their open space. So to encourage people to engage with the park, he’s working on bringing more events and programs to the park.

Most of the foot traffic in the park is from people going to and from East River Park, and many visitors don’t even realize that it’s a separate park. He wants to give Corlears Hook Park its own identity. There’s something in the park for everyone – benches for seniors, a playground for little kids, a water feature for cooling off on hot summer days, a field for organized games, dog runs, and of course the green space that’s so vital to New York City. Because of the dedication of Michael and the many other volunteers, Corlears Hook Park is becoming a destination in its own right. 

Through all his many successes, and the frustrations, Michael has many lessons to share on how to start and sustain a successful friends-of group:

  • Make sure to involve the community board from the beginning. He didn’t have them on that very first call with Partnerships for Parks, and they were upset, although that didn’t stop the community board from working with them going forward.
  • Work with your neighbors. The East River Houses, a private co-op development adjacent to the park, let them borrow tables and chairs to use at their events in the park. The Vladeck Houses, another neighboring NYCHA development, has hosted FoCHP meetings in their community room and actively promotes their events to tenants.
  • Be persistent. Michael went to three community board meetings before he was able to get funding. He kept asking the Parks Department to address the comfort station, and even showed them pictures to demonstrate the need.
  • Reach out to companies that have an interest in improving the park. Michael reached out to agents at Halstead Realty who list many apartments in building’s neighboring the park. Halstead recognized the benefit the improved park would bring to their sales and donated money for food and drinks for the volunteers at the clean-up events.
  • Empower your volunteers, don’t micro-manage.  Michael invites volunteers to choose projects that they care about, and he gives them ownership of those projects and pride in the outcome. He makes sure to have projects that will appeal to all level of skill and ability.
  • Get to know and reach out to members of your community. Girls Scouts helped at the spring and fall ‘It’s My Park Day’ events, because one of the community members is a troop leader.
  • Consider your local and surrounding communities. Prior to their ‘It’s My Park Day’ event, all the FoCHP events had been on Saturdays. A young woman studying horticulture came to an event that was held on a Sunday, and explained that she had never been to any prior events because she’s an observant Jew. So now Michael makes sure to always alternate between Saturday and Sunday events.
  • Remember that the park is an amenity for the entire community. Especially if the work feels overwhelming, remember that people want to see it improve and will be grateful for your work.

NY4P Testifies on the East New York Community Plan

Thursday, January 07, 2016

New Yorkers for Parks Testifies on the East New York Community Plan

On January 6, 2016, the New York City Planning Commission held a hearing on the East New York Community Plan. The Plan would rezone the neighborhood to allow greater housing density, including requirements for the preservation and creation of new affordable housing. The Mayor seeks to increase affordability for New Yorkers, which we support. We evaluated the Plan with a critical eye on how well parks are planned and provided for. The City's own analysis showed that the Plan would have an adverse impact on parks in East New York. In our testimony to the Planning Commission we asked for more parks and open space, as affordability need not come at the expense of healthy and vibrant neighborhoods. 

Go to the issues page to see our testimonies, or download the pdf here.

Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Gordon Davis

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Gordon Davis

Gordon Davis has a long history with New York City parks, having served as Commissioner for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation from 1978 to 1982, an appointment received from Mayor Ed Koch. His work at DPR had a lasting impact still felt today: while there he co-founded both the Central Park Conservancy and the Prospect Park Alliance, he established the NYC Urban Park Rangers, and he oversaw the restoration of Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

A native of Chicago, Mr. Davis graduated from Harvard Law School in 1967. He then worked in New York City government, becoming a member of the New York City Planning Commission from 1973 to 1978. He is currently a partner at Venable LLC, where he deals with land use development and related environmental issues.

But Mr. Davis is not done supporting parks, and one of the ways he does this is by being a sustaining donor to New Yorkers for Parks. We interviewed Mr. Davis where he shared his insight into why parks are essential, how we can make them better, and why he supports the work of New Yorkers for Parks.

What do you think is important about the work that NY4P does?

My history goes back to when NY4P was called the Parks Council and Barbara Fife was president. The primary function of NY4P is to serve as a watchdog and, at times, a friendly adversary. Sometimes back when I was commissioner the Parks Council would annoy me, but that’s ok. NY4P is the only citywide organization with that function, and they are doing it very well. As a former Commissioner, I can say that we always think we’re doing it right. But everyone in every aspect of government and community building needs council and advice from a group that is independent and objective. Every part of city government serves as stakeholders involved in the creation and maintenance of public open space. We currently have a very good city council parks committee, and I have no doubt that NY4P played a significant role in the increase in parks funding under the current city administration.

What do you see as being the most important issues facing NYC parks in the next 10 years?

The issues are always the same – resources. Money. We’ve seen an increase in parks acreage in the past 12 years, but the underlying issue with open space is always about capital to build and maintain parks.

New York parks have the most elaborate capital system in the world. It’s a hugely sophisticated infrastructure. It’s a neighborhood infrastructure – whether it’s a trip to the local park, or getting on the train to Coney Island – and it’s used in the most intimate way by New Yorkers. This makes maintaining our parks very challenging.

It’s easy for the city to decrease resources for parks, because it’s hard to maintain a coalition to ensure that doesn’t happen. It’s politically easy to decrease funding to parks because the consequences are not immediately visible. So it’s necessary to have a strong coalition to protect and advocate for parks resources. NY4P has been making these coalition advocacy efforts more effective.

The library campaign during the last city budgeting session was great, but it would be very hard to do something similar with parks because there aren’t organizations with the same level of resources. And of course the parks department can’t lead a public campaign. We need to have coalition-building and resources applied to maintaining parks, which is a very hard mission. NY4P is the only organization trying to do that.

Why do you choose to support New Yorkers for Parks?

I support NY4P because I love the work they’re doing, and I want them to be able to do more and bigger and better.


2015 Recap and Looking Ahead to 2016

Thursday, December 10, 2015

2015 was a very busy and successful year for us. Here are just a few of our accomplishments:

  • We released our newest edition of City Council District Profiles, providing comprehensive information about all 51 districts’ open space resources.
  • We released our 2015 Report Card on Beaches, a comparative analysis of the quality and usability of New York’s eight municipal swimming beaches.
  • We worked with Council Member Julissa Ferreras on the creation of the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Alliance.
  • We successfully advocated for the creation of new legislation requiring greater transparency in how Parks Department funds are spent.
  • We provided New York Restoration Project with research which helped inform their Haven Project, creating new and improved open space for the South Bronx

Over the coming year, NY4P has a robust agenda for NYC’s parks and open spaces: 

  • We will release our next Open Space Index about the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, and our Report Card on Midsize Parks in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.
  • We will continue to provide technical assistance to communities facing rezoning to help them identify the effects proposed changes will have on open space in their area.
  • We will move forward with our “How’s Your Park, NYC?” outreach initiative, building a unified, citywide network of advocates working for a better parks budget and improved parks conditions.
  • We will celebrate the 15th anniversary and plant the 7 millionth bulb as part of our Daffodil Project, one of the largest 9/11 memorials.
Please consider supporting NY4P with an end-of-year gift so that we can make parks work for all New Yorkers across the city.