Bringing Back a South Bronx Gem

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

By Erica Cooperberg

One of the South Bronx’s most venerable and beloved parks is in need of some TLC.

Since the late 1800s, St. Mary's Park has provided a secluded escape from city life. Though surrounded by flat land, the park's almost majestic topography invites visitors to explore expansive hills that transport them far from the urban hubbub of Mott Haven. The borough’s first playground was built there in 1914.

Today, families and friends flock to the park's barbeque areas, staking out their spots hours in advance. Others congregate by fitness equipment or take laps around the track. Children gravitate toward the playground, while parents and walkers relax on benches.

Over the decades, the park's popularity has taken a toll on the 35-acre park, which is ridden with muddy paths and cracked asphalt, eroded hills, bleacher-less baseball fields and stairways closed off due to disrepair. These conditions contributed to the park’s C+ score in NY4P’s 2012 Report Card on Large Parks.

That score – and the park’s tremendous potential – are the impetus for an NY4P effort to bring renewed attention and care to the park, including a March 10th story in The New York Times that highlighted some of its shortcomings and an upcoming open space assessment of the Mott Haven neighborhood, in which St. Mary's is located.

We continued this focus last Saturday, when we co-sponsored a volunteer cleanup in the park with Con Edison, a founding supporter of our Daffodil Project.  Nineteen Con Ed employees set out to beautify the park in what became a bonding experience for the group of predominantly new hires.

Parks Department staff provided a list of tasks, and the volunteer teams got to work. Some spent the sunny morning repainting benches, concrete water fountains and the decorative posts at the park’s entrance. Others hiked across the park’s hillsides collecting trash, which filled five large garbage bags.

Con Edison values our strong relationships with our nonprofit partners serving communities in New York City and Westchester County,” Con Edison said in a statement. This past weekend we joined New Yorkers for Parks to help beautify St Mary’s Park in the Bronx. Together, we worked the fields, playgrounds, and paths, collecting litter and putting fresh paint on benches and water fountains. St. Mary’s is a vital resource to its nearby residents and we’re grateful to help make a difference. We look forward to working with New Yorkers for Parks again.

The cleanup gave volunteers an opportunity to participate in park stewardship beyond the Daffodil Project's active fall planting season. And it gave St. Mary’s some much-needed attention. The park currently lacks a “friends of” group, which is something neighborhood residents would like to change.

“It’s important to have local volunteers invested who could go to community boards and elected officials and ask for funding,” said Emily Walker, who handles community outreach for NY4P.  

In the long run, the park will require multiple cycles of care: from short-term stewardship like last weekend, to mid-term fixes like pathway and surface replacement, to long-term care, like erosion mitigation.

We're hopeful that events like Saturday’s successful cleanup with Con Edison will spark more volunteerism in St. Mary's Park, often the first step in bringing new investment to city parks in need.

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