Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Pat Jacobs

Monday, September 16, 2013

By Erica Cooperberg, NY4P Communications Intern

The imposing brick wall of the Jackie Robinson Park Pool casts a formidable shadow along Bradhurst Avenue in Harlem. But from her favorite seat opposite the bandshell, Pat Jacobs has watched the park transform into a welcoming neighborhood retreat.

“It’s a hub of neighborhood activity – of all kinds,” she observed on a recent visit to the park, gesturing toward nearby park-users, including students writing in notebooks, a grandmother eating sandwiches with her young granddaughters, and a girl taking a break from her workout to chat on her phone.

Today, Jackie Robinson Park hosts a steady stream of visitors taking advantage of its pool, weight room, playgrounds, handball court, baseball fields, cooking classes, library, bandshell performances, and Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation's after-school program. But it hasn't always been this way.
Longtime community members remember the 80s, when the park suffered from severe neglect and became a haven for drug activity. And they remember, Jacobs said, that it took a real effort from the community itself to bring the park back to life.
The Jackie Robinson Park Conservancy was created in 1999, and with the continued love and attention of park stewards, it has evolved into an effective partner with the Parks Department and its local manager.
That success, Jacobs says, is largely due to the makeup of her group. She moved to Harlem in the early 1990s, joined Community Board 10, and joined the Conservancy soon after. Its board includes, among others, an environmentalist, doctor, forensic accountant, government affairs consultant, social worker, curator, and developer, along with several entrepreneurs, social-service providers and educators.

 “It’s like seeing the park through a kaleidoscope,” she said of serving on the board. “It mimics the diversity of our community.”
Their work has provided tangible results. Aided by grants from the City and elected officials, the Conservancy hosts concerts and annual holiday events. And they’ve helped cultivate a sense of community pride and ownership in the park.
“We have helped bring accountability,” Jacobs said. “We’re seeing more and more that people love this park, and it has grown into a community. If someone’s walking their dog they know we’re going to be making sure they have that little blue bag. They know it’s their responsibility to clean up. If you drop paper or litter in the park, they know people will say, ‘What are you doing?’”
As if on cue, Jacobs was stopped minutes later along the park’s Bradhurst Avenue edge by a woman who was troubled by how dirty the playground’s rubber safety surfacing was, suggesting they bring in water to clean the mats. Jacobs was proud to note that such concern for the park is common – even if park-goers aren’t directly affected by a problem or don’t get credit for attending to it.
But loyal park-users reap other benefits, like camaraderie with the park’s Recreation Specialist Jeffrey McFarlane, who seemed to know the name of every person who walked through the doors of the recreation center. Though he lives outside the neighborhood, he’s worked in the park for eight years and has no plans to leave his post anytime soon. This pride and neighborly familiarity, Jacobs said, reflects what makes Jackie Robinson Park so special.
“He knows this place inside and out,” she said of MacFarlane. “He knows the children, and they know and trust him. If you have ownership, like he does, you make sure things are done right. The Parks Department can’t ever let him leave. Hands off Jeffrey!”
Jacobs has an ambitious wish list for her two-year tenure as Chair of the Conservancy. She hopes to see new bathrooms built near the bandshell, a refurbished Rachel Robinson Lending Library, and a new garden planted next to the 145th Street entrance. She also hopes to begin a language program for students to learn Mandarin, French and Spanish, along with a computer programming class for kids.
But even with big plans for the future, Jacobs doesn’t lose site of the park’s venerable history: from its WPA-era pool, opened before a crowd of 25,000 in 1936, to its historic ties with youth baseball in Upper Manhattan – reflected in the park’s name. Originally called Colonial Park, it was renamed in 1978. And the ballplayer’s family took notice, Jacobs said. Another member of that kaleidoscopic board: Jackie Robinson’s granddaughter.
“We have great respect for the Robinson family, and they love this park,” Jacobs said. “Their name doesn’t go on just anything.”
Jacobs & NY4P will host volunteers from Daffodil Project sponsor Ernst & Young for a cleanup of Jackie Robinson Park this Friday.

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