Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

A special Villager supplement

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Whether the fountain and arch should be perfectly aligned in Washington Square Park, as called for in the Parks Department renovation plan, has been subject of passionate debate.

Green spaces are renovated, but upkeep is lacking

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

The last time I was asked to write a piece like this was in 1994. Another community newspaper had listed Bleecker Playground (where my kids played) as one of New York City’s 10 worst playgrounds. Forty people per night slept in Abingdon Square Park, which, despite its swings, was an open bathroom. Twenty more slept in the Bleecker Playground sitting area. J. J. Walker Park had a dust bowl for a ball field, a playground used as a dog run and an inner sitting area that was used to sell crack. Washington Square Park was awash in drug dealers. There was no park space on Mercer St. Hudson River Park was just a controversial proposal, and there wasn’t even a bikeway. Community Board 2 was so oppositional it voted against the proposal for a bikeway and demanded that an environmental impact statement be done before kayaking was allowed off the Gansevoort Peninsula.

We’ve come a long way in 12 years. Hudson River Park is heavily used. The bikeway leads from Battery Park to the George Washington Bridge. We not only have a rooftop ball field on Pier 40, we have a field in the center large enough for a professional ball team to play on. The park has its problems. Pier 51 at Jane St., the only playground space, with marvelous water features, is immensely overcrowded. The dog run is too small. And, of course, there is the problem caused by too many youthful L.G.B.T. park users leaving the Christopher St. Pier at 1 a.m. during the summer. Garbage trucks still rumble in and out of the Gansevoort Peninsula, but they should be gone by 2012.

In the West Village, Abingdon Square Park is beautiful and used by dozens of people at all times — old, disabled, young, looking to view some flowers, grass and trees in the middle of a stretch of our neighborhood with few trees and lots of concrete. Bleecker Playground, renovated 10 years ago, is looking run-down and needs some new plantings, new sand and new equipment. The sitting area next to it needs renovation, badly, as its wavy brick floor and solid wood benches fall apart. J. J. Walker Park has been entirely rebuilt and is in marvelous shape — New Yorkers for Parks gave it an “A” on its last report card. A total renovation is getting underway at Father Demo Square at Sixth Ave. and Bleecker St. that will make this spot a classic plaza, complete with a new working fountain.

As we head east, the small parks of the Central Village look beautiful. Most have been renovated over the last 10 years. But they are all already showing signs of neglect, which has grown worse with each administration going back to David Dinkins. In 1980, the city had 4,643 Parks Department workers. In 2005 it has 1,353. Maintenance has suffered, and while the city pours lots of capital funds into parks, it falls flat on maintaining them. (Compare: Chicago spends $108 per resident per year on its parks; New York City spends $25 per resident per year.)

Then there is Washington Square Park, the gem of the Village. It has a lot of cracked walkways. It doesn’t have much grass. It has no flowers. But it is safer and cleaner than ever. The money is available to do quite a renovation. Behind the demonstrations and the speeches at community board meetings is a genuine concern. Will the renovation turn Washington Square Park into a “tranquil place of respite” (a phrase repeated in some of the pro-renovation letters I receive), beautiful but sterile like City Hall Park? Or will it maintain its character as a place to gather, to perform, to watch and to play? Will it lose the eclectic charm that draws so many and makes it so symbolic of the cockeyed streets of the Village? Only time, and lots of continued, focused pressure will tell.

Union Square Park, our park to the north, has developed new character, as a gathering place, since 9/11. Its history too is threatened by renovation plans that call for privatization of its north end, with barriers breaking up the north plaza. Its playgrounds need a lot of work. Councilmember Margarita Lopez secured the funds years ago, but the work has not begun.

Between Washington Square Park and Tompkins Square Park, things are bleak — not much park space. As we approach Avenue A, however, Tompkins Square Park, renovated in the early ’90s, looms. It is an oasis, with numerous playgrounds, two great dog runs, a great spot for rollerblading, a nice pool and basketball courts. But somehow, in a neighborhood that has so little parkland, it is often empty. Why? Because the planners who created the idyllic park, which is central to the area’s gentrification, made it difficult to get to the grass (you have to jump a fence) and eliminated all but one small open space outside the rollerblading area.

The East Village is still full of incredibly beautiful gardens, idyllic respites with paths, trees and flowers, which in the rest of the Village exist only in hidden backyards or the common areas behind rows of townhouses. Two of my favorites: Avenue B at 6th St. and Avenue C at 10th St. Idyllic, but far from uniform, sterile or empty.

To the south, in Soho, park space is at a premium — there is very little of it. Over the next year, one of the biggest efforts that community needs to unite behind is the effort to unfreeze the funds for Petrosino Park (at Kenmare at Lafayette Sts.) so that at least part of that community has some modicum of park space. A bit to the east, across Grand St., in East River Park, lies an oasis for young and old — but that “secret,” underutilized space needs a whole article itself. The Parks Department is currently undertaking a major overhaul of East River Park’s seawall and esplanade.

We have come a long way with Village parks. The changes happened because community groups and block associations demanded them. That pressure must continue. The lack of maintenance and the lack of regular presence of Parks Department employees in all but Washington Square, Tompkins Square and Bleecker parks will see these parks get run-down like before, sooner than one might like to believe. Villagers shouldn’t take parks for granted. What we’ve gotten is the result of pressure. It’s got to keep up, not just around Washington Square and Union Square, but around every postage-stamp-size piece of green space we have.

Schwartz is chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Committee

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