January 27, 2012
When families move to Astoria, they often stay there.
It’s venerable place, where longtime residents sip coffee at cafes with neighbors, enjoy outdoor meals where they’re known by name, and the rattling of the elevated N and Q trains along 31st Street eventually just blends in with the surroundings. And of course, there's the neighborhood park – Astoria Park – where the views of Manhattan from the historic 1936 Astoria Pool are framed by the sweeping archways of the R.F.K. and Hell Gate bridges. It's unsurprising that so many have been here for so long.
“I moved here 20 years ago and I’m still new,” said Martha Lopez-Gilpn, the Co-Chair of the Astoria Park Alliance.
While she may feel like she has only just arrived, Lopez-Gilpin has already made an enormous impact on the neighborhood. In 2006, she began organizing cleanups in the 60-acre waterfront park. One day as she cleaned, she was approached by Helen Ho, a Partnerships for Parks employee.
“She asked if I’d be interested in establishing a park stewardship group,” Lopez-Gilpin said. “I was immediately interested and she helped organize a meeting of interested parties. It was all really serendipitous.”
The group named itself the Astoria Park Alliance (APA); Lopez-Gilpin and Jules Corkery became its Co-Chairs. Initially, the group focused on park and shoreline cleanups, and the acquisition of new trash cans. Along the way they were aided by Partnerships, which fosters and works with local park groups around the city, and joined Green Shores NYC, a coalition of community and business groups that work to improve and promote waterfront parks and shoreline in Astoria and Long Island City.
“Martha is the ideal parks volunteer,” said Joe Block, Queens Outreach Coordinator at Partnerships. “She has an amazing attitude, loves getting people involved and loves helping people.”
Lopez-Gilpin is a part-time fitness trainer and has also made fitness a big part of the APA's mission. In 2008, the APA drew more than 400 participants at its first event, a fitness fair. Since then, the group has partnered with the nearby United States Tennis Association to host youth tennis lessons, and frequently schedules yoga classes for seniors and fitness classes on the park’s overlook.
The APA has strengthened the park’s ties to the surrounding neighborhood by getting local businesses involved in events. Last year, the group approached the City’s Department of Transportation about closing Shore Boulevard, which separates the park from the East River, for a summer festival. The Department was receptive, and the Astoria Park Shore Fest was born. For three consecutive August weekends, families gathered for music, games, art and food – all provided by businesses in the community.
“We wanted to help people reimagine the space,” Lopez Gilpin said. “It couldn’t have been more successful.”
Finally, a chief mission of the APA is to make the park feel welcoming to visitors from the polyglot neighborhood – no matter what language they speak. With that goal in mind, Lopez-Gilpin, Corkery and other APA members have worked with Partnerships for Parks and the Parks Department to become certified Park Greeters – essentially there to make people feel comfortable, answer any questions and gently enforce park rules. The APA is also working with the City to introduce more multilingual signage in the park.
Lopez-Gilpin is eager for spring, when she can greet new visitors and direct them to the APA’s butterfly garden underneath the Hell Gate Bridge. She likens her role as Greeter – and as park steward in general – to that of the golden fish, one of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism.
“The Golden Fish symbolizes the auspiciousness of all living beings in a state of fearlessness, without danger of drowning in the ocean of sufferings, and migrating from place to place freely and spontaneously, just as fish swim freely without fear through water,” Lopez-Gilpin explained. "Equal and fair access to the space and its amenities is one of our priorities. We want everyone to use our park fearlessly and without abandon, and with regard to others and the park itself.”
Though Lopez-Gilpin has clearly become a neighborhood fixture, that she still feels new is not surprising. After all, while she once could’ve hardly imagined the role she would play in Astoria, she now has lofty aims that are still evolving.
“It takes a while to build trust that reflects the diversity of the community,” she said. “It’s public land and we’re all there together.”