Meet a New Yorker for Parks

Mac Levine

March 5, 2013

The key to Mac Levine’s success isn’t that she knows what’s best for the children of East Harlem. It’s that she knows how to get them to tell her what’s best for themselves.

She doesn’t dictate to children of the Washington Houses what to plant in their 15,000-square foot garden – they decide. In fact, they are the ones who decided they wanted the garden in the first place.

That’s a lesson she learned in 2007, when there was little interest in the urban youth hiking program she tried to organize.
“I quickly realized that if they were going to have ownership, they were going to have to be the primary decision-makers,” she said.

Levine’s desire to work with children began when she was a teenage volunteer at Coalition for the Homeless.

“There was a little girl in the program, couldn’t have been more than 6-years-old. Every day her mom filled her milk bottle with alcohol. She would tell her ‘mom, I need milk!’ I kind of lost it. I knew then that I was going to start a nonprofit.”

When her hiking program didn't take off, Levine spent hours in meetings at community centers and settlement houses throughout Upper Manhattan, where she knew obesity and poverty rates were high. The most common suggestion: work with the Union Settlement Association in East Harlem.

She founded Concrete Safaris and formed a partnership with the Settlement, a mainstay in the community for more than a century, and zeroed in on public housing developments, most of which are far from sizable, accessible parkland.

“These are neighborhoods where a lot of people don’t spend much time outside,” she said. “In so many of the developments, there’s all this green, but it’s fenced off.”

Concrete Safaris took off in earnest in 2008, growing to more than 300 children, aged 7 to 11, by the end of the year. Since then, she has expanded her network to include several schools in the area, along with the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center and the Association to Benefit Children. The program now works with P.S. 102 five days a week and has served more than 3,200 children since its inception.

It was the children that drove the program’s growth. Levine remembers a nine-year-old organizing a survey for her peers to determine the after-school and summer program’s curriculum, which today also includes biking, swimming and public speaking.

Perhaps few elements of the job bring Levine greater satisfaction than when a child no older than 11 learns a gardening curriculum well enough to teach it to classmates – and sometimes even to adult volunteers.

Learning from a peer, she says, helps get them more engaged, and quickly.

“When you watch a kid go from knowing nothing to running up to you or their parents with excitement because they are excelling, to me that’s perhaps the most rewarding part of my job.”

This model is now well-known at the Washington Houses, where, with the support of the New York City Housing Authority’s Garden and Greening Program, the garden flourishes with a migratory butterfly space and a wide variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables – all selected by the children.

The garden is available to surrounding residents and has even adapted to shifting demographics in the neighborhood. As more Chinese residents move into the area, the children have introduced Chinese cabbage and four varieties of hot peppers into the mix.

That organic adaptation reflects the tailored approach Concrete Safaris takes in different locations. For example, Levine is able to recruit children more informally and spontaneously at Jefferson Houses, a bustling community with vibrant street life, than at Washington Houses, where there is less mingling in common spaces.

“What’s good for one development – even though the issues are the same – might not necessarily be good for the other,” she said. “Each location we go to needs to be approached in a different way.”

It’s with this sort of thoughtful approach that Levine is building the program at Jefferson, where children are moving ahead with their own garden, approved last year. 

Local leaders and experts say Levine has done a great deal to transform the way hundreds of children think about their open spaces.

“Concrete Safaris highlights how existing open space, in this case NYCHA grounds, can be optimally used to provide fun and educational programs for inner city children right in their backyard,” said Maida Galvez, an Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “I can't say enough good things about what she is doing for East Harlem children.”

Galvez is currently working on a joint research project with NY4P that examines the relationship between access to open space and children’s health in East Harlem. The first report of the project, the East Harlem Open Space Index, was released by NY4P last fall.
In a forthcoming report, Mount Sinai researchers will analyze the relationship between East Harlem's open space resources and the health and obesity rates of 225 neighborhood children. NY4P hopes to identify strategies for incorporating the study's findings into actual park and open space planning, encouraging design of spaces that promotes active recreation.

Levine is doing her part to address one of the recommendations of last fall’s report – maximize public use of existing open space, including within Housing Authority developments. We’re hopeful that other local stakeholders, armed with our research, will join that push.
If funding were available, Levine would consider expanding her program to other parts of the city. But right now her focus remains East Harlem, where she sees the community’s open space resources – however unconventional – as a true lifeline. And she’s developed a strong network of volunteers who will, true to the Concrete Safaris model, chart their own course.