By Olivia Riggio
July 30, 2021
We look at the centuries-old struggle for public parks that serve all New Yorkers, not just the rich.
It’s a mid-July evening in Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick, Brooklyn and people are out, enjoying the final few hours of daylight. The sounds of basketballs bouncing and sneakers squeaking echo in the nearby courts. Some people sit placidly on benches, others walk their dogs along the paths. Parents chase children teetering on their bicycles and teenagers skateboard over the cobblestone pavement. A group of 20-somethings sits talking on a blanket in the grass, which, in certain patches, is overgrown and littered with soda cans and plastic bags. Over by the volleyball court, a match has drawn a rowdy crowd along its perimeter.
Maria Hernandez Park may not be a tourist destination, but it is a staple for the surrounding neighborhood, which is largely Hispanic and working class.
Bushwick resident Jorge Leon, who works at a nearby dry cleaner, says he often comes to the park after work to enjoy the fresh air.
“In the house, you’re all closed up. Here you can come, you can get a little bit of space and air, trees, oxygen,” he tells The Indypendent in Spanish as he sits on a bench along the path.
THE HISTORY OF NYC’S PARKS
Parks have been an important respite from urban life in New York City for centuries. But they also have not served everyone equally. They’ve historically been used as real-estate development tools to attract tourists and wealthy New Yorkers and push out low-income residents, says historian Marika Plater, who specializes in the history of the city’s parks. Plater’s recent Ph.D. dissertation focuses on what low-income New Yorkers did for fun outside in the 19th century, when the first of the city’s parks emerged.
“Parks were almost never created for poor and working-class people. They were used primarily as a real-estate development tool,” Plater says.
In the early 19th century, Plater explains, green spaces in the city served as commons: places where people could relax, but also do work like grazing their livestock, peddling goods, beating carpets and foraging for food. But as wealthy New Yorkers refined their ideal of leisure, homeowners would buy up this land and turn it into parks. Developers would notice the demand for fancy real estate near green spaces and municipal leaders soon got in on the action. This process pushed out labor in parks and led to strict rules about what behaviors were allowed. Working people pushed back from the start; there are accounts of people jumping off the Battery naked and letting their animals run wild in protest.
“What I always try to remember is there was this profoundly undemocratic history of these public spaces. They weren’t made for everybody, they were really made to shape development and control how people navigated the city, but people never let that stand,” Plater says.
By the 1830s, the city was still only sparsely populated above 14th Street. As it diversified and wealthier residents began to want out of Manhattan, leaders used parks in an effort to encourage them to move up the island instead of to Brooklyn, which was another city at the time. Gramercy Park, still in the middle of a wealthy neighborhood today, was part of this effort, Plater says. So was Central Park, built atop Seneca Village, a neighborhood made up of free Black land-owners and some Irish and German immigrants who were evicted to reinforce the notion that uptown was a wealthy district. Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and Tompkins Square Park in the East Village also served development goals.
“If we think about parks this way, they’re either created to make a ritzy neighborhood or to displace an ‘unsavory’ neighborhood in the eyes of the displacers, or both,” Plater says.
The Battery, in a wealthy area now, was surrounded by a low-income neighborhood in 1876, when residents rose up to protest plans to build an elevated railroad over the park.
Because environmental history has mostly been a wealthy, white and male-dominated field, Plater’s work includes critically reading what rich people wrote about poor park-goers, along with court records describing charges against people accused of crimes and public disturbances in the parks. Personal archives were hard to come by, as many poor people weren’t literate at the time, though Plater found some diaries that were helpful in their research. Newspapers often included transcripts of speeches at protests in the parks. But Plater says analyzing how everyone — not only the wealthy — engaged with nature is important to environmental history.
“What’s the relationship between the environment and humans? We can answer that so much better if we look at a wider range of humans,” Plater says.
Plater says these primary documents revealed three main reasons why equitable access to parks was important to poor New Yorkers in the 19th century: First, because they were free to visit and saw a lot of foot traffic, they were prime places to hold protests. Second, they promoted good health. Before the germ theory of disease was established in the 1860s and 1870s, it was believed that “fresh air” was the key to good health and that illness was caused by breathing unclean air. Finally, parks were an oasis from grueling, dirty city life and allowed for pleasure to be not just a privilege reserved for the super-wealthy.
We see many of the same patterns Plater studies today. Some of the city’s best-maintained parks are in wealthy neighborhoods. The High Line, an elevated park built atop a historic freight rail line in Manhattan’s Chelsea and the old meatpacking district, is a tourist destination. It opened in 2009 and is a public park, but run by a nonprofit that relies on donations. Brooklyn Bridge Park is located in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, where the median income is nearly $200,000 a year. It is also maintained by a non-profit, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation.
But some parks in less wealthy neighborhoods have become battlegrounds. East River Park, located on the Lower East Side, is slated to be leveled and raised 10 feet as part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. The five-year project would destroy 1,000 mature trees and hinder access to green space for the surrounding community, which includes dozens of public-housing buildings. The trees would be replaced with saplings and the park would be redesigned to be “low-maintenance” with metal and concrete furniture.
Grassroots community group East River Park Action has been fighting the plan since 2018, which The Indy previously reported on. The city has already begun construction on the part of the project above 14th Street.
East River Park Action is part of two current lawsuits: One seeks to obtain a full, unpredacted version of the city’s Value Engineering Study, which claims to have justified destroying the park in the name of flood protection, but actually reveals alternatives. (The group currently has access to a heavily redacted version.) The other is demanding that the city obtain “alienation” approval from the state Legislature, as is typically necessary when it plans to use a park for any other purpose. The group is also pushing City Councilmember Justin Brannan (D-Brooklyn), chair of the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, to demand an oversight hearing to investigate the plan.
“It is of and for a low-income community. And that’s where the disparity comes in,” says Tommy Loeb of East River Park Action.
The East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, born out of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, is supposed to protect neighborhoods from the effects of flooding due to climate change. But East River Park Action has outlined an effective flood control plan that wouldn’t destroy the 85-year-old park. Loeb recalls that Sandy did not devastate the park. There’s also no interim flood protection plan set for the period while the work is being done.
The city claims it’s going to keep at least 42% of the park open at any time, but Fannie Ip of East River Park Action says the plan is not yet guaranteed. Plus, she points out that the 42% doesn’t have to be green space — it could be basketball courts or blacktop. The group has asked for free ferry service to Governors Island for Lower East Side residents if the plan goes ahead. It was denied.
“Part of the reason is that our neighborhood is a low-to middle-income neighborhood and it feels as though they could just come in and do whatever, come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to destroy this entire park,’ she says.
Although the city claims the flood plan is popular, Ip says most residents don’t even know about it and when they do, they’re mostly against it. The group collected over 2,000 signatures from public-housing residents opposed to the construction.
“A lot of people still don’t know what’s going to happen with East River Park and when they do find out, they are mostly against it and they are literally shocked when we tell them,” she says.
Parks in wealthier neighborhoods don’t get the same treatment. Recently, after Battery Park City residents protested, Governor Andrew Cuomo withdrew a plan to erect a COVID-19 memorial that would remove 2,000
square feet of green space in Battery Park. The historic Elizabeth Street Garden in Nolita faces being
leveled to build affordable housing for the elderly, with a luxury ground floor for retail and office space. The group hired civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel and has built a strong legal case against the development.
Ip says East River Park Action looked into hiring Siegel and found it couldn’t afford him.
“We have no resources to hire people or, you know, have someone look at these materials for us,” she says.
WHO OWNS THE PARKS?
The city slashed the Parks Department’s budget last year during the COVID pandemic. Green space advocacy groups, including New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P), were recently successful in getting those cuts restored. But the current amount allotted to the city’s more than 1,700 parks — which take up more than 300,000 acres of land, 14% of the city’s area—is only 0.5 percent of the city’s budget, according to NY4P executive director Adam Ganser.
“Literally within a couple of months, parks were in the worst conditions that they’ve been in in 20 years, by the Parks Department’s own measure,” he says. “New York City’s park system is one that has been historically and chronically underfunded. It does not work equitably for all New Yorkers. Many, many, many New Yorkers rely on tiny parks in their neighborhoods that do not provide the same amenity that those of us who are fortunate to live around places like Prospect Park or Central Park have. The way the parks system works is that it relies very much on small parks throughout the city.”
During the pandemic, many of those smaller parks were shut down. An estimated 1.1 million New Yorkers lost access to local parks during a time when outdoor spaces were some of the safest public places to be.
The Trust for Public Land (TPL)’s goal is to ensure that every American is within a 10-minute walk to a green space. New York City is 99% there, according to TPL, but the quality of these parks differs greatly. There’s $6 billion in deferred infrastructure funding on park maintenance, Ganser says.
“There hasn’t been an administration that has met that problem head-on,” he says. “And I think we have an opportunity now with the new administration to really address all of these issues and the main reason is that people are focused on parks nowadays in a way that they haven’t been in a long, long time.”
In April, NY4P and the Play Fair Coalition co-hosted a forum with the mayoral candidates to outline their plans for the city’s parks. NY4P developed a 5-point plan for park equity, which includes doubling funding to 1% of the city’s budget, creating a “director of the public realm” to oversee all of the city’s public space, creating a more equitable parks system, ensuring all New Yorkers are within a 10-minute walk to a park and reforming the capital process to ensure that projects are completed in a timely and cost-effective manner. The major Democratic candidates agreed to most of these ideas and all were on board with the budget proposal.
Democratic nominee Eric Adams, who is all but certain to become the city’s next mayor, outlined his commitments to all five points, but also states that he plans to partner with private conservancies and nonprofits “who can execute work faster and cheaper than the city.”
Right now, who maintains which New York City’s public space is complicated. Some are managed by the Parks Department. Others are owned by the department but maintained by nonprofits and conservancies. Some parks are owned by New York State, while playgrounds can be owned by the city Department of Education, the Parks Department or the New York City Housing Authority. Waterfront areas may be maintained by Parks, the Department of City Planning, the Department of Environmental Protection or the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Yet other public space belongs to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the city Department of Transportation or others, which is why NY4P is advocating for centralized oversight.
Ganser says the conservancy model became the saving grace of parks in the ’70s and ’80s, after budget cuts imposed during the 1975-76 fiscal crisis devastated city services.
“You had residents coming together to bring resources and time,” he says. “I think it’s a good thing. It brings private resources into the city around those parks. What it should do is it should allow the Parks Department to focus its energy on those areas of the city where they don’t have those types of private resources.”
The problem with this model is these private resources tend to go to the parks that serve the rich; the Central Park Conservancy takes in more than $65 million per year. Mayor Bill de Blasio backed away from a plan to reroute 20% of conservancy revenue to parks in poorer neighborhoods after the conservancies fought back against it. Instead, he settled for eight of the city’s largest conservancies donating their expertise, labor and a small amount of money.
The state of parks today follows the pattern of the 19th-century history Plater studies.
“Conservancies are Band-Aids that prevent some parks from wilting in the context of municipal neglect,” Plater says, “but not all communities are resourced enough to fund conservancies, so the result is that wealthier neighborhoods have the parks that are lush and impoverished neighborhoods either don’t have parks or have parks that show a lot of wear and tear. While there is something compelling about neighbors joining together to care for their local park, I think that privatizing park maintenance is a recipe for inequality.”
Donors to conservancies, Plater adds, often envision parks as quiet, more subdued places of contemplative leisure, but many community members have, throughout history, fought and broken rules to make their local green spaces also be places of gathering, rowdiness and parties. Recently, residents who live in the wealthy Greenwich Village neighborhood surrounding Washington Square Park complained about late-night noise and parties in the area, leading to a controversial 10 p.m. curfew during Memorial Day weekend. When police descended upon the park to kick people out, they arrested and pepper-sprayed dozens.
As of now, the parks that the city isn’t entirely responsible for managing — such as Prospect Park, the High Line, Battery Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park and Central Park — tend to be tourist destinations and well-maintained oases. Those run entirely by the Parks Department — like Maria Her- nandez or Friends Field in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood — are often smaller and more frequently littered and overgrown.
“My personal opinion is that it’s unfortunate that we need to have conservancies — we have to form private conservancies — in order to keep our parks maintained,” Ip said.
EXPANDING EQUITABLE ACCESS NATIONWIDE
Brooklyn resident Shira Ungar’s Instagram page @junkspace3000 is tiled with photos of green spaces in and around the city and state, hashtagged #everyparkny. One of Ungar’s goals is to visit every park in New York and surrounding areas — from the shiny new futuristic-looking Little Island on the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan to the track, football field and playground of Linden Park in East New York, Brooklyn.
“In my project of visiting parks all across New York, it is really, really clear that the quality and quantity of green space available in low-income neighborhoods is really different from those that are available in high-income neighborhoods. It does make a really big difference in quality of life,” Ungar says.
Although Little Island is pristine and state-of-the-art, it doesn’t have many fixtures useful for community life, Ungar says: “It doesn’t give a whole lot of value to people who actually live here. There’s not a whole lot of places where you’d sit or play sports or do any of the things that a lot of people in the city use parks for. It’s really, like, a concert venue.”
Ungar, who works for the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, is also a NextGen Trail Leader with the American Hiking Society (AHS), a national group that advocates for improved trail access. The yearlong partnership with the group is similar to a fellowship: NextGen Trail Leaders engage in advocacy, political lobbying and promotion on social media. AHS supports their own endeavors stipends for education and gear, networking connections and speaking opportunities.
Ungar focuses on advocating for transportation and access to parks.
“I think that it’s one of the more important ways to create equitable space and to allow everybody to have the same access to public lands and outdoor space. It’s a really important thing for mental health and physical health,” they say.
AHS is currently supporting the national Transit to Trails Act, introduced by Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). The bill would establish a grant program through the federal Department of Transportation that would offer residents of underserved communities transportation to and from public lands.
In March, AHS and the Partnership for the National Trails System co-hosted the 24th annual Hike the Hill event, although on Zoom instead of outdoors. Ungar spoke to staffers of New York Congressmembers Rep. Nydia Velazquez, Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to advocate for the bill.
Ungar said it would not only provide access to trails in rural areas for people in cities, but also give people in rural areas access to parks in cities. That would mean more New York City residents could experience natural space outside the city and those from rural areas could experience urban life and visit urban parks.
HOW TO HELP
While New York City’s management of parks may remain dubious, there is work individuals can do too. “Love your local park,” Ungar says. “The local parks are the ones that are super-important and can create community in a lot of ways.”
Aside from advocating with groups like East River Park Action, residents can contact their local parks and inquire about volunteer opportunities or simply go to the nearest green space and pick up trash.
If the next mayor ups the parks budget, it will matter to which parks that money goes.
“You don’t want to add funding to green spaces that exist in order to drive up gentrification in those neighborhoods,” Ungar says. “You want to give funding to the community in order to make the spaces something that’s usable for them and not necessarily just a super-fancy manicured garden.”