At NY4P’s June 5 Parks budget rally on the steps of City Hall, Debra Myers arrived with a Claremont Park/Mt. Eden Malls/Grand Concourse sign, and a broad smile. She grabbed a green “Support Our Parks” shirt and began waving it wildly. When the event ended, she started handing shirts to participants in the next rally – totally unrelated to parks – that had booked time on the steps. What could they do other than oblige her? She joined them in the fourth row, still waving her green shirt, and still smiling and shouting her support for parks. Though perhaps slightly confused, the participants in the rally joined in, waving their shirts, too. Her passion for parks is contagious.
The effect Myers has on people, along with the lessons of her earliest years, have helped her make a difference for more than 40 years in the Mount Eden section of the Bronx.
“I grew up in South Carolina – a rural farming community,” Myers said. “My mother died when I was just six, but I remember always gardening with her. I never forgot how she taught me to be proud of where I lived because it looked beautiful.”
In the 1960s, she moved to Harlem, and a few years later, the Bronx, and had children of her own.
“All I saw when I moved was concrete, sidewalks, dirty tenement buildings,” she said. “I couldn’t walk outside into green, like I had in my childhood.”
She began small, by gaining permission from her landlord to plant flowers in front of her building.
“I wanted to teach my children the same thing my mother taught me. I wanted them to go out their front door and see beauty, like I had,” she said.
Her work along the block continued, and she became active in the local civic world, becoming her building’s Tenant Association President and frequently speaking out in public meetings about local education and housing issues. As people encountered the warmth of her community pride, they, too, began planting flowers along residential blocks.
Since 1997, Myers has expanded her beautification efforts to nearby 38-acre Claremont Park and the Mount Eden Malls, a narrow, five-block green space that abuts Claremont. Neighbors and friends have joined in droves, helping to line the formerly trash-strewn space with tulips, NY4P daffodils, and other flowers.
But Myers didn't stop there. In 2004, she secured a $500,000 allocation from former New York City Council Member Maria Bayez for It’s My Park Day plantings and cleanups along the Malls and attracted the support of Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of the City Parks Foundation and the Parks Department. Partnerships for Parks joined her for the inaugural It’s My Park Day in 2004 and has been a steady partner ever since. In 2006, she founded Friends of Mount Eden Malls and Claremont Park.
But then, despite her efforts to keep the park clean and organize planting and weeding events, Myers said the park’s maintenance conditions deteriorated, largely due to fewer permanent and temporary workers dedicated to Claremont.
That makes sense, considering the severe cuts that have been made to the Parks Department’s maintenance and operations budget since 2008, and the 62 percent cut in the temporary worker program that makes up the bulk of the Parks Department’s maintenance staff. Myers’ trusted Park Supervisor was transferred without notice away from Claremont, a place he had known intimately, Myers said.
But the last straw for her was NY4P’s 2011 Report Card on Large Parks, which gave Claremont a “D" for maintenance conditions. The report found “an extraordinary amount of litter” impacting athletic fields, courts, lawns and natural areas, along with weed growth, hazardous tree stumps and non-functioning bathrooms.
Myers took the report to her local Community Board’s Planning Committee meeting and to Bronx Parks Commissioner Hector Aponte’s office.
“The Department really became focused on Claremont after that,” she said. “They really listened, offered to work with us in the community on cleaning and weeding, and now it is much better. I was grateful for the grade, to be honest. It’s kept people on their toes.”
Myers is now working with Council Member Fernando Cabrera to secure capital funding for tree pruning, grass re-seeding, and sidewalk and retaining wall repairs. If her past influence and attitude is any indication, she will succeed. Myers just keeps pushing, and touching people with her relentless optimism and spirit. Thanks to those lessons her mom taught her as a little girl in South Carolina, she won’t be letting up anytime soon.
“I visit the park, or the Malls, or even my block, and I see children able to see beauty. It gives them a sense of pride in where they live. You can’t give a child back a childhood. I see a little girl smile, and it just makes me so happy. I can’t stop because of that.”
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