In Memoriam: Greg Hopper

Monday, February 10, 2014

Saint John’s Pentecostal Church was packed to the rafters on January 3. But four blocks to the east, in Harlem River Park, something just wasn’t right.

Greg Hopper wasn’t there.

Not teaching neighborhood children how to fish; not walking his pit bull, Blue; not providing support for the park’s homeless encampment under the 135th Street FDR Drive overpass. He had been a nearly constant presence in the park for more than ten years, and made people from all walks of life feel welcome there. But when he passed away of a heart attack on December 26, he left a void along the shores of the lower Harlem that may be impossible to fill.

If the park was empty on that Friday in January, it’s because most of its regular users were at Hopper’s services – whether they had known him for years or had simply fished with him once.

“This is a man who touched people,” said Richard Toussaint, a longtime park advocate and member of the Harlem River Park Task Force who lives in the building where Hopper lived. “He brought our community into the park. When he passed, it broke everyone’s heart.”            

Hopper, who was in his mid-40s, was memorable to anyone who met him simply because he was such an enormous man.

“You’d see him and you’d jump back,” Toussaint said. “He’d walk toward you with his pit bull and you’d expect him to be outside a nightclub throwing people across the street. But he’d open the door to you before you even had a chance. The guy had a smile that would make the devil give up his horns. And Blue was as friendly as Greg was.”

“He was the eyes and ears of the park,” said Lucian Reynolds, an urban planner at the Harlem Community Development Corporation, which sponsors the park’s Task Force. “His touch was always attuned to what was going on around him, and to the needs of those around him.”

Hopper employed that touch when dealing with a seemingly intractable problem in the park: its longstanding homeless encampment.

“He approached them with the idea that parks can have many uses, and that even if not everyone likes it, this is how these people had decided to use the space,” Reynolds said.

Hopper enlisted the help of a nearby social service agency, and at the same time – with a social worker’s sensitivity – gently convinced many in the encampment to be receptive to the agency’s assistance.

On the other end of the park, Hopper was a member of the A-Team, the park’s longtime fishing contingent.

“Everyone in the park knows the A-Team,” Toussaint said. “They said hello to anyone passing through, and they’d take their time to teach anyone who wanted how to fish. They bring people on board, welcome them back. If you live in NYC, you have an open invitation to join them.”

Not only was Hopper a leader of the group, but he went out of his way to help others get involved. Last July at the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance’s City of Water Day, he was concerned that there weren’t enough supplies for all the children who’d want to fish. Though the budget had run out, he spent his own money to buy hooks and bait.

“We had run out of money and he looked at me and said ‘I got this,’” Toussaint said. “Eight out of 10 kids were catching fish that day. These were kids who were fishing for the first time.”

Hopper also ran karate and exercise classes for children, and relentlessly cleaned the park and its overpasses, which are too often littered with syringes and other illicit materials. NY4P staff members joined him for such a cleanup on a sweltering day last July.

“It didn’t matter how uncomfortable it was – he was going to get it done,” Reynolds said.

Hopper employed that same approach many times on behalf of the park, particularly when it suffered extensive damage in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. After the storm, Toussaint said, Hopper was “like the jolly green giant out there cleaning, like a human bulldozer.”

In speech after speech at the funeral service, neighbors and friends recalled stories like this, and now must come to terms with a Harlem River Park without Greg Hopper.

“If,” Reynolds said, “there was an architectural rendering of the park, you know, with all of the people using it for different activities, Greg was all of them in real life.” 

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