July 15, 2020
By Winnie Hu and Nate Schweber
Governors Island, a 172-acre oasis in the middle of New York Harbor, has become one of New York’s City’s most popular summer playgrounds with hammocks, biking and spectacular water views.
But the island’s managers want it to be a greater resource for those who need it the most, especially during the pandemic — poor and nonwhite New Yorkers who often lack parks in their neighborhoods.
So the island, which reopens on Wednesday, has for the first time adopted a ticketing system aimed at prioritizing those parkgoers while sharply reducing the number of overall visitors to ensure social distancing.
“Our goal this year is really to make sure New Yorkers in need are able to access the island,” said Clare Newman, the president and chief executive of the Trust for Governors Island, which manages the park.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the poor and people of color the hardest, has laid bare another glaring inequity: park access.
In a city with some of the most famous green spaces in the world, many low-income New Yorkers live in virtual park deserts and are largely shut out of a sprawling network of more than 2,300 parks that has become more important than ever for physical and mental well being.
Many Black and Hispanic families squeezed into cramped apartments in the South Bronx, one of the poorest sections of the city, have to fight for every bit of green space, while less than five miles away, residents of the affluent Upper West Side of Manhattan have both the lawns and ball fields in the 840-acre Central Park, and the playgrounds, dog runs and waterfront views in the 310-acre Riverside Park.
At the height of the pandemic, more than 1.1 million New Yorkers did not have access to any park within a 10-minute walk of where they lived, according to an analysis by the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group that helps create public parks across the country. Many of those without access were in densely packed and low-income Black and Hispanic neighborhoods outside Manhattan.
Nearly all these New Yorkers lost the only outdoor space they had when the city shut down playgrounds and small recreation areas to prevent the virus from spreading. Since then, playgrounds have officially reopened, but many parents said they have stayed away because of crowding.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed flaws in the park system that I don’t think we understood,” said Adrian Benepe, a senior vice president for the Trust for Public Land and a former city parks commissioner. “Not all parks are created equal. Small parks do not have room for lots of people to exercise and socially distance.”
Many large parks are heavily used by nonwhite New Yorkers. But, across the city, parks in poor and nonwhite neighborhoods are smaller and have to serve far more people than in wealthy neighborhoods. The average park size is 6.4 acres in poor neighborhoods, compared with 14 acres in wealthy neighborhoods, according to an analysis by the Trust for Public Land.
Similarly, the average park size is 7.9 acres in predominantly Black neighborhoods, compared with 29.8 acres in predominantly white neighborhoods.
For Michel Cerisier, a Haitian immigrant, the closest thing his family had to a park during the pandemic was a patch of sidewalk in front of their house in a predominantly Black area of the Flatlands neighborhood in Brooklyn.
His daughter, Brianna, 6, usually plays in Prospect Park three miles away, but he worried that taking two buses to get there would expose them to the virus. “I don’t go to the park at all,” said Mr. Cerisier, 56, who works as a taxi driver. “It’s tough for the kids. Really tough.”
City officials said they had significantly expanded access to parks in recent years, refurbishing small parks and remaking larger parks into community anchors in the South Bronx; Brownsville, Brooklyn; and other low-income neighborhoods. They have added parks to public housing complexes and pressed more schoolyards into service as neighborhood parks.
During the pandemic, the city also opened 67 miles of streets for walking and biking. “To protect health and safety, we had to temporarily shut down playgrounds and other park amenities, but we also opened up miles of streets across the city for pedestrians to enjoy, with a focus on neighborhoods that did not have access to open space,” said Jane Meyer, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
A stretch along 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, now serves the overflow crowd from a busy park. “This open street has been such a wonderful respite for the neighborhood,” said Martha Lopez Gilpin, 60, an actress who walks there every day.
Still, some park advocates said many park-starved neighborhoods were left out of the city’s open streets program. Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said that while he supported the open streets, “they were not equitably distributed based on need.”
City officials said more recently, open streets have been placed in neighborhoods with high rates of the virus and few parks.
Even though New York City’s network of parks is one of the country’s largest, it was created piecemeal as real estate developers built up neighborhoods, said Mr. Benepe, the former parks commissioner.
The result, he said, is some of the city’s most crowded neighborhoods were left with no parks or only pocket-size parks and playgrounds squeezed between buildings. Small parks often lack the amenities found in larger parks, like athletic fields, jogging and biking paths and natural areas like woodlands.
And many small neighborhood parks have been neglected for decades, while Central Park and other well-known parks have conservancies that help pay for their operations and upkeep.
Tina Omoighe, a union supervisor in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and her sister recently tried to have lunch at Betsy Head Park near their home, only to find part of it closed for construction. They ended up at a small playground over a mile away. “We didn’t have other options,” she said. “What are we supposed to do?”
In the South Bronx, Rick Francis, 58, said he had to watch three of his eight grandchildren play on the concrete pavement because there was no good, big park nearby. “You’re kind of just stuck walking around the neighborhood,” he said.
Leaders of some of the city’s signature parks have acknowledged the inequities in park access.
And some park leaders have stepped up their efforts to make large parks more accessible to poor and minority visitors.
Prospect Park, a 585-acre oasis, is building two new entrances to connect directly with lower-income communities along its eastern edge, including Flatbush and Crown Heights.
“As neighborhoods change and there’s more gentrification, I think it’s imperative that we make sure the park continues to feel open and accessible to all,” said Sue Donoghue, the park administrator and president of the Prospect Park Alliance, the park’s conservancy.
The Riverside Park Conservancy has replaced its annual spring gala with a two-month fund-raising campaign for programs and activities in the north end of the park, which draws nearby residents of lower-income communities, including Harlem and Washington Heights. The park also recently hired an outreach coordinator to work with those communities.
Further south, Hudson River Park runs free science and technology camps — which have gone virtual this summer — for children from two public housing projects.
Governors Island has a long working history as a training ground for soldiers, a hospital site for yellow fever and a Coast Guard base. Since opening as a park in 2005, it has offered attractions including the city’s longest slide, at 57 feet, down a hillside. It has also hosted Jazz Age lawn parties and even luxury overnight glamping in Frette robes.
Last year, the park had about 800,000 visitors, up from 8,000 when it opened.
Though the island draws people from all over the city, a significant percentage comes from affluent neighborhoods, including Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope in Brooklyn, and Lincoln Square and the Upper West Side in Manhattan, according to recent surveys.
The new ticket system will limit the ferries to 5,000 people per day on weekends, or roughly half the typical ridership. “The pinch point is the ferry,” said Ms. Newman. “Once you get to the island, it’s a huge amount of open space.”
Ferry tickets, which cost $3, are being made free to public housing residents and some community organizations. The ferry stop to the island from Brooklyn has also been moved from Brooklyn Bridge Park to Red Hook, which is home to one of the city’s largest public housing complexes.
“The pandemic has, for us, really raised an urgency to redouble our efforts to make sure we reach disadvantaged New Yorkers,’’ Ms. Newman said, “and New Yorkers with less access to green space.”