Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Michael Marino

January 13, 2016

“I feel most proud and excited when I see our diverse community coming together in our park, working toward a common goal. Our unofficial motto is, ‘Even if you’ve only got 20 minutes, you can help your park.’”

Michael Marino had no intention of starting a friends group when he decided that something needed to be done for his neighborhood park, but within the span of one month that’s just what happened. He had his first meeting with park officials and advocates in September of 2014, and two months later Corlears Hook Park had its first community park clean-up, followed by another impromptu day of raking leaves over 2014’s Thanksgiving weekend. Now he has engaged over 100 local community members, received over $6000 in grants, raised over $2000 through online fundraising, and is in the process of creating a more formalized leadership for Friends of Corlears Hook Park. And it all started because of foster dogs.

A long-time New Yorker, Michael moved next to Corlears Hook Park in the Lower East Side in 2012. When he began fostering dogs a year later, he started going to the park almost every day.  Corlears Hook Park’s dog runs – the only ones available south of Tompkins Square Park on the east side – were in poor condition.

“The community couldn’t really use them,” he recalls. “Both runs were very dirty, dirt and mud would get on the dogs. The runs would flood when it rained, the gates weren’t secure, and instead of fencing the small dog run only had chicken wire.”

That’s also when he began to notice other problems. Eight lamps were out, making the park feel unsafe and uninviting at night. The turf field was frequently used for baseball and soccer games, but the comfort station hadn’t been open for almost two decades. Kids and sometimes even adults were going to the bathroom in the bushes. “That’s when I really felt that something had to be done,” he explains.

Michael contacted State Senator Daniel Squadron’s office to find out if there were any friends groups active in the park. None existed, but the senator’s office offered to help him start one. They organized a call with Partnerships for Parks coordinator Kirsti Bambridge and other friends groups to give him guidance on how to get his budding organization off the ground. The recently-created NYC Bark Club had been working with the park manager on fixing up the dog runs, so Michael also began working with them.

He went on a walk-through of the park with the Corlears Hook park manager, his Partnerships for Parks Coordinator, concerned community members, and Community Board 3 manager Susan Stetzer, and they came up with a list of priority projects for the park.

Early successes were small but noticeable. The broken street lamps were fixed and new trees were planted to replace the dozens lost due to Hurricane Sandy. The first few clean-up events drew small numbers at first, but people’s enthusiasm for the projects demonstrated both the necessity of this work and the park’s untapped potential.

Friends of Corlears Hook Park (FoCHP) continued to host ‘It’s My ParkDay’ events throughout 2015. A spring event combined park clean-up with family-fun activities such as games, face painting, and bubble experiments. For weeks after that event parents would stop Michael on the street and ask when they were having another. In early fall, FoCHP received daffodil bulbs from New Yorkers for Parks, and planted them with help from NY4P and volunteers from the Nathan Cummings Foundation. They also partnered with CITYarts, BlackRock, Henry Street Settlement Expanded Horizons College Success Program, and the Chinatown YMCA at Two Bridges Community Center to scrape down and repaint a peeling retaining wall around the park’s playground. Drawing from local Girl Scout troops and volunteer organizations at New York City high schools and colleges, FoCHP hosted their most successful event yet.  Over 80 volunteers showing up to help plant new garden beds at all of the park’s entryways.

Sometimes people stumble upon FoCHP events, turning an impromptu moment of interest and inspiration into engaging work. Michael remembers when an elderly woman walking through the park during a clean-up day approached a volunteer trimming rose bushes. “The woman didn’t speak much English, but the volunteer handed her the pruning shears and showed her how to trim down the branches and clip a few roses. (She) smiled from ear to ear.”

In addition to doing hands-on work in the park, Michael works with advocacy organizations and elected officials to get much-needed funding for the park. Guided by other friends groups and Partnerships for Parks, he had a meeting with Council Member Rosie Mendez and managed to get $250,000 to refurbish of the dog runs. He also worked with the Parks Department and elected officials to get the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to commit money towards fixing and reopening the comfort station. Until that money comes through they’re using a port-a-potty. “It finally happened,” he explains, “after I complained enough and showed the Parks Department enough disgusting photos.”

That’s not the only time Michael’s tenacity paid off. Michael describes the recent process he went through to get funding for refurbishment of the playground, water feature, and basketball court in the park onto Community Board 3’s budget priority list. “I had to go to three different community board meetings where I made the same pitch and said the same thing every time. And I wondered if it was really worth it. But then at the last meeting, I was one of the only parks group representatives there, and I think that’s why I was able to keep my project high on the priority list to hopefully qualify for funding. ”

The biggest frustration of the whole process has been dealing with slow-moving bureaucracy of government, something all advocates can relate to. “The Parks Department is so underfunded and staff is stretched so thin that decision making takes a lot longer than you want. Because we are an all-volunteer group, with full-time jobs, sometimes we can’t wait for a week or two weeks to get an answer.”

Going forward, Michael wants to bring more active programming to the park. Most of the buildings in the neighborhoods have courtyards and gardens, and residents see those as their open space. So to encourage people to engage with the park, he’s working on bringing more events and programs to the park.

Most of the foot traffic in the park is from people going to and from East River Park, and many visitors don’t even realize that it’s a separate park. He wants to give Corlears Hook Park its own identity. There’s something in the park for everyone – benches for seniors, a playground for little kids, a water feature for cooling off on hot summer days, a field for organized games, dog runs, and of course the green space that’s so vital to New York City. Because of the dedication of Michael and the many other volunteers, Corlears Hook Park is becoming a destination in its own right. 

Through all his many successes, and the frustrations, Michael has many lessons to share on how to start and sustain a successful friends-of group:

  • Make sure to involve the community board from the beginning. He didn’t have them on that very first call with Partnerships for Parks, and they were upset, although that didn’t stop the community board from working with them going forward.
  • Work with your neighbors. The East River Houses, a private co-op development adjacent to the park, let them borrow tables and chairs to use at their events in the park. The Vladeck Houses, another neighboring NYCHA development, has hosted FoCHP meetings in their community room and actively promotes their events to tenants.
  • Be persistent. Michael went to three community board meetings before he was able to get funding. He kept asking the Parks Department to address the comfort station, and even showed them pictures to demonstrate the need.
  • Reach out to companies that have an interest in improving the park. Michael reached out to agents at Halstead Realty who list many apartments in building’s neighboring the park. Halstead recognized the benefit the improved park would bring to their sales and donated money for food and drinks for the volunteers at the clean-up events.
  • Empower your volunteers, don’t micro-manage.  Michael invites volunteers to choose projects that they care about, and he gives them ownership of those projects and pride in the outcome. He makes sure to have projects that will appeal to all level of skill and ability.
  • Get to know and reach out to members of your community. Girls Scouts helped at the spring and fall ‘It’s My Park Day’ events, because one of the community members is a troop leader.
  • Consider your local and surrounding communities. Prior to their ‘It’s My Park Day’ event, all the FoCHP events had been on Saturdays. A young woman studying horticulture came to an event that was held on a Sunday, and explained that she had never been to any prior events because she’s an observant Jew. So now Michael makes sure to always alternate between Saturday and Sunday events.
  • Remember that the park is an amenity for the entire community. Especially if the work feels overwhelming, remember that people want to see it improve and will be grateful for your work.