March 15, 2017
For the past two years Steve Chesler and Katherine Thompson have been at the center of a David versus Goliath-worthy story about a group of committed community members banding together to put pressure on the New York City Government and a wealthy landowner. Their work has been so original, forward thinking, and dedicated, that New Yorkers for Parks is recognizing them at this year’s Daffodil Breakfast with a special “Parks Pioneer Award.”
While the saga and success of Bushwick Inlet Park has been well documented, what’s less known is the story of the people behind the movement, led by Steve and Katherine and the Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park. What we don’t know enough about is the day-to-day hard work that went into making it happen, and what lessons Steve and Katherine can offer to other New Yorkers facing similar battles for open space.
While there were many important pieces of the Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park’s activism, four key ingredients stand out:
“We engaged local community groups from day one – that was hugely important. You need to have a broad coalition.” Steve explains. “We started working with existing open space advocates like El Puente and the Open Space Alliance right away, and had initial meetings with Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning, and Council Member Stephen Levin.”
Then they went beyond the obvious. They reached out to local schools, parent-teacher associations, churches, athletic leagues, and others, and found that they all wanted to see the park completed, too. They canvassed at farmer’s markets to educate and get to know folks who may not be connected through other organizations.
The message they used to get people excited wasn’t complicated. “We said that our park was in danger,” says Steve. “It was a tangible fight – there was something very specific we were fighting for. But it’s also part of bigger issues around equity and fairness. It’s the notion that parks and waterfront access shouldn’t only be for the wealthy.”
Katherine emphasizes the importance of creating actions that are kid and family-friendly. “People can bring their children, and it’s not only easier for them to show up and stay involved, but then you get grandma and grandpa coming out, too. We would offer dinner and childcare at some of our events, and a lot of them had art and button-making workshops or other hands-on activities for the kids.”
They also offered more specifically political events like advocacy training and letter-writing parties. Because it became an ongoing program, the community not only knew to expect them, but could depend on them. The outreach and activism of the Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park became something to look forward to.
What’s notable about the efforts of the Friends is that their inclusive method of activism is exactly what enabled them to succeed. Because they reached out to everyone, they had a large group of people with diverse skill sets to contribute to the effort. It wasn’t just open space advocates, or people with experience working with government; they also had filmmakers, performers, artists, graphic designers and others who used their talents to help spread the word and sustain the momentum.
“I literally called it our tool box,” Katherine recalls. “When we had another hurdle to clear, or an event coming up, I’d ask, ‘What’s in our toolbox?’ And I’d think of everyone we had involved, all the various skills they had, and ways they could contribute.”
Burgeoning groups need to have real, committed engagement, Steve notes, even if it’s just a few savvy people at first. From there you can branch out. “There are probably journalists and artists who are interested in telling your story, even if they’re not from your community. Because these kinds of issues and fights are happening across the city, and many city initiatives are really only in the best interests of the developers – these problems aren’t restricted to any one neighborhood. If you give someone the opportunity to document your fight, you can both get something out of it.”
You can also give your elected officials the opportunity get something positive out of your fight, as well. While it can take some pushing at first, Steve and Katherine’s experience is that elected officials really do want to act on the will of the people. “Politicians aren’t bigger than a group of citizens. It doesn’t even take that many people to influence them, as long as you speak up and show up.”
Council member Stephen Levin sponsored a rally for the park on the steps of City Hall, which ended up drawing over 300 attendees, more than the site could accommodate. The Countdown Clock and the camp out were both proposed by Borough President Eric Adams. “I shared a tent with Congresswoman Maloney,” Katherine remembers, laughing. “It was a little surreal.” The Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park also got strong and sustained support from State Senator Squadron and Assemblymember Joe Lentol.
Ultimately, the most important ingredient was persistence. In addition to the events the Friends held in their community, they also attended community board meetings across the city to speak about their experience and offer advice. Because community board meetings are reported back to the city, this meant Bushwick Inlet Park couldn’t be ignored or forgotten.
They testified at Department of City Planning and City Council hearings as often as they could. “We hijacked hearings,” Steve says matter-of-factly. “Identify a good speaker in your group, and go to as many hearings as you can.” Look for city hearings that are related to your issues in any way – they could be about housing, transportation, or other topics that don’t immediately stand out as relevant to your issue. Find the connection, and go.
Steve, Katherine and other members would go to local elected officials’ town hall meetings, and have at least two or three people in the audience prepared to ask questions about the park. When they saw their elected officials or city officials at public events, they would ask them about the park, without fail. They were on a first name basis with the Planning Commissioner, the Parks Commissioner, representatives from the Mayor’s Office, and others.
All of this combined led to their truly remarkable success. The Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park held the city accountable, and protected one of the last pieces of publically accessible waterfront open space in Northern Brooklyn. That’s one of the reasons New Yorkers for Parks is honoring them at this year’s Daffodil Breakfast with the “Parks Pioneer Award.” They truly are pioneers in our city's ongoing push to save and create quality open space.