Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Jennifer Ratner, Friends of the East River Esplande

November 11, 2015

Jennifer Ratner founded the Friends of the East River Esplanade almost ten years ago to “create a waterfront that everyone in the surrounding communities can be proud of.” An essential resource that the group uses in their advocacy work is New Yorkers for Parks’ Manhattan’s East Side Open Space Index. “I carry the Index everywhere I go,” Ms. Ratner explains. “Having the New Yorkers for Parks name on the research we use lends credibility to our advocacy. Because we’ve come to the same conclusions about the need for open space in our community, it has a big impact.” They’ve presented the Index to numerous politicians and community leaders, including at their first meeting with NYS Assemblyman Robert J. Rodriguez. That conversation helped prompt him to create A Tale of Two Rivers, which called for increased funding for the Esplanade.

Ms. Ratner has lived near the Esplanade for 50 years, and is a die-hard lover of New York City. While she was long aware that the Esplanade needed a lot of work, her activism really began about ten years ago while biking along the waterfront with her seven-year-old son. Seeing such a beautiful place with crumbling paths and inadequate infrastructure prompted her to go to a local East River task force meeting. While there she suggested that the Esplanade needed a conservancy. One thing led to another, and the Friends of the East River Esplanade was born.

The Index shows that the demographic that could benefit from an improved waterfront extends far beyond the current users. The Friends want to change that, and envision the Esplanade providing much-needed open space to all different types of users, “not only from different socioeconomic backgrounds but for people with different interests - for the fishermen, bikers, runners, etc. We want to make it more welcoming.” Ms. Ratner believes that, “if you build it, they will come; or in this case, if you improve it, they will come.”

They’ve had numerous successes so far. Through their persistent advocacy they convinced the City to fix dangerous sinkholes along the Esplanade. They used grant money to fund the first-ever public art display on the Esplanade, earning them coverage in the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets. A big part of their vision is to have quality programming on the waterfront, because they find that people like knowing that things are happening in their neighborhood and community. To that end they’ve hosted events like plantings, Latin music concerts, and Afro-Caribbean dance performances. They realized that the Esplanade doesn’t have food vendors – so they even brought in local ice cream maker Ice & Vice.

“We want to be even better than the West Side,” Ms. Ratner says with a laugh, but she isn’t joking. She knows that the East Side has huge potential, and the Friends of the East River Esplanade are committed to meeting it. “The Manhattan’s East Side Open Space Index came out at the same time that we decided to really ramp up our efforts, and it felt serendipitous. It’s extremely helpful to have something tangible that puts numbers and data on what we’re saying.”