By Winnie Hu
July 15, 2022
There was always something to do at the red brick park house with the big inviting archways.
Children huddled around chess and checker boards when the playgrounds and basketball courts were rained out. They played Ping-Pong, learned to whittle in a wood shop and watched movies with their friends.
This was more than 40 years ago.
“The kids really had nowhere to play,” said Bob Humber, 86, who was a youth worker in the 1970s. “They had no other place. They loved that place.”
But that was before city park officials quietly converted the brick building — which had thrived as a community center for the Lower East Side as part of Sara D. Roosevelt Park — to storage space for equipment and supplies. It is unclear exactly when that happened.
These days, it looks like a fortress with partly boarded-up windows in a sketchy section of the park where people sell and use K2 and other illegal drugs. Behind the building, an outdoor area with benches and spray showers to cool off on summer days sits empty after being temporarily fenced off to deter illicit activities.
The loss of the park house illustrates the challenges in a long-running struggle by residents and community groups to save a narrow sliver of urban parkland that straddles Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Chinatown neighborhoods. Built by city officials in 1934 as an urban renewal project to bring relief to families in squalid tenements, the park has become a catch basin for the city’s crime and drug problems and homeless crisis.
“This building is a dead space right now because it’s only for the toilet paper and the paint in there,” said Melissa Aase, the chief executive officer of University Settlement, a nonprofit that runs education and social service programs. “In a city that is becoming more and more dense, every possible welcoming space is needed to enhance the community.”
Reopening the park house would create “an anchor of safety” at a time when many residents are concerned about crime by introducing programming and bringing in more visitors, said K Webster, the president of the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Coalition. “The only way we know to make a park safe again is to actively use it,” she said.
It is a strategy that worked for another Manhattan park. A full roster of activities — including movie nights, concerts, dancing and ice skating — helped transform Bryant Park from a deserted, crime-ridden patch in the 1990s into one of the city’s premier green spaces, said Dan Biederman, the president of the Bryant Park Corporation, a nonprofit.
But city park officials have been unwilling to turn over the park house — which sits next to Stanton Street — until they can find an alternate storage place.
“The Stanton Street building is a key distribution center for supplies and tools serving parks throughout Manhattan on a daily basis,” said Megan Moriarty, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “We are actively working on identifying a viable alternative location for this distribution center; any future public use will be determined at a later date.”
The fight over the park house comes as the pandemic has laid bare the inequities of city life. Many poor New Yorkers have limited access to the city’s sprawling network of more than 1,700 parks, playgrounds and recreation facilities, which has become more important than ever for physical and mental health.
A campaign led by New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group, has called for increasing parks funding to 1 percent of the city’s budget, or roughly $1 billion. It rose to $624 million in this year’s budget, with a spokesman for Mayor Eric Adams calling it “a down payment” on the 1 percent goal.
The decline of Sara D. Roosevelt Park is an example of “many decades in the making of what happens to a park when you don’t provide the resources to operate and maintain it,” said Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks.
It serves a working-class area squeezed in between new high-rent neighborhoods and upscale development projects. The median household income around the park was $69,202 annually compared with $89,812 for Manhattan, according to a census analysis by Social Explorer, a research company.
As stretches of the park have become desolate and beaten-down, many families and older people have stayed away. Frances Brown, 40, pushed her son’s stroller past drug users shooting up. They went to a playground near the Stanton house a handful of times last year until they found human feces there. “Never again,” she said.
Fencing to close off problem spots has taken away more park space. “It seems to be totally counterproductive because the park is made for people — and it subverts that purpose,” said Tom Wolf, an art history professor whose loft overlooks the park.
Fears about the safety of the park flared last year after a bike delivery worker was fatally stabbed there. Concerns about anti-Asian violence in the area also increased after a woman was stabbed to death in her apartment across from the park in February by a homeless man.
There have been 51 major crimes — including one murder, nine felony assaults and 12 robberies — reported in Sara D. Roosevelt Park since 2019, according to an analysis of police data by OpenTheBooks.com, a nonprofit. Last year alone, the park had 17 crimes, ranking 11th among parks citywide.
One organization, Audubon New York, suspended a plan last year to plant a garden in the park after a program manager cited concerns about the safety of its staff members and volunteers.
The problems have spilled out to surrounding blocks. People have vandalized buildings and aggressively threatened store workers and customers. A wine bar has found drugs, needles and knives hidden in its planters.
An acupuncture clinic across from the park ended up relocating to the Union Square area because of safety concerns. “It’s just a no man’s land in a lot of ways,” said Nini Mai, 40, its founder.
It was not always like that.
In 1934, the dedication ceremony for Sara D. Roosevelt Park, which included a cannon salute, was attended by thousands and broadcast over the radio from Maine to Virginia. The site had been intended for low-cost housing but was later turned over for “playgrounds and resting places for mothers and children.”
City officials insisted on naming the park for the mother of Franklin D. Roosevelt, then president, though she tried to decline the honor, saying that she “wished to stay in the background.”
There were separate playgrounds for boys and girls, two wading pools, a roller skating rink and four park houses. Stanton was a field house. A singing contest there in 1939 drew 30 children.
By the 1980s, however, Sara D. Roosevelt Park had become overrun by drugs, crime and prostitution. Local residents banded together to pick up trash and drug needles from playgrounds. They transformed a weed-strewn lawn into a lush garden.
It worked, for a while. Then the park started slipping again. Many residents and business owners are frustrated that they do not get more help from the parks department. “It gets neglected,” said Alysha Lewis, a former chairwoman of the local community board. “The parks department really treats it like it’s a stepchild.”
Sandra Dupal, who owns a bakery, offered in 2017 to pay for a kiosk to sell sandwiches and snacks so that more people could enjoy the park. She never got an answer from park officials. “The park has untapped potential,” she said.
City park officials said that they had made $11.4 million in improvements to the park since 2005 and that they had plans for $21 million more in projects, including the reconstruction of a playground. They have worked with other city agencies to bring homeless-outreach teams and medical vans to the area. They said they would also look into concession possibilities.
“We are committed to improving and caring for the park’s many features and facilities for New Yorkers of all ages to enjoy,” Ms. Moriarty said.
Only three of the original park houses are still standing. They have public bathrooms, which are accessible from the outside. The other two houses are used for park operations, including a communications hub and a substation for a parks enforcement patrol. All the buildings should be turned over to the community, advocates say, but they asked for Stanton first partly because that section is in bad shape.
Adrian Benepe, a former city parks commissioner, said that park officials had limited options in finding other storage in space-starved Manhattan. “I don’t believe it’s a question of will or money,” he said. “It’s a question of logistics.”
But Ms. Webster and other advocates say that it is an equity issue, and that the Stanton house should not be used to support other Manhattan parks, including larger parks with far more resources.
In recent years, a grass-roots campaign has generated many ideas for the park house. Community center. Bike repair station. Swimming pool. Students at the Pratt Institute worked on designs that reimagined what it could look like.
Reynaldo Belen, 20, who recently graduated from a high school across from the park, said it should be used to bring people together. “That could kind of stop some of the violence in the area,” he said. “You don’t shoot someone you know or see all the time.”
Back when park officials started moving supplies into the park house, Mr. Humber, the former youth worker, said he was told it was only temporary. He has been demanding that the park house be returned to the community ever since.
“I’ve been fighting for this building for so long,” he said. “I’m hoping that I’m still alive when they open it.”