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Volume 73, Number 3 | May 19 - 25, 2004

A special Villager supplement

The birth of a Union Sq. Park advocate; Who knew?

By Susan Kramer

When my first child was a toddler, the three playgrounds in Union Sq. Park were where we spent most sunny days. We started out in the boring “tot lot” and then graduated to the larger, big kids’ playground. When that got too crowded, I reluctantly brought my son to the sand park with the dubious play equipment and barricade masquerading as a gate. The more time I spent in the sand park, the more disgusted I got with the state of the playgrounds. So much so that I finally decided to do something about it. I sent a letter to then-Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, who wrote back that the sand park was “temporary.” He planned to re-sod it and turn it back into the lawn it once was. With the center lawn already off limits most of the time, I thought, “Just what we need, another lawn prison.” I was incensed and started a petition to get the backing of city officials and the Parks Department to improve the playgrounds. This was in the spring of 1998.

Tiny person, big voice
I spoke my mind at a Community Board 5 meeting about the sorry state of the playgrounds and how Henry Stern wanted to grass one of them over — over my dead body. A tiny woman with a deep gravely voice approached me afterward to offer her support. Evelyn Strouse was chairperson of Union Square Community Coalition, which I had never heard of, despite my living in the Union Sq. neighborhood since 1976.

Evelyn took the plight of the playgrounds seriously, and had U.S.C.C. commission a design for a new playground. I became more and more involved with U.S.C.C., especially where this new design was concerned. The design was presented to the Parks Department and to city officials. We had many meetings and forums to involve the public. After much input and many revisions, we thought we had a basic plan that was liked by all parties. But this was not to be. At the last minute, Parks presented a new area for a playground that we hadn’t considered. That was the area where the concession, Luna Park, is presently. The idea was to fill in the pit level and make one contiguous, larger playground. Sounded like a great idea, but one that we thought would never fly with all of the players in the community. It turned out we were right.

Upon Evelyn Strouse’s retirement in 2002, the U.S.C.C. board decided to keep our organization going and to build upon its reputation as the voice of the residents of the Union Sq. area. Evelyn left us with a fiery pathway to continue, and Gail Fox and myself, as co-chairpersons, try to keep it going.

Playground takes shape
With U.S.C.C.’s concept for an improved playground consolidated into a single space as the starting point, the Union Square Partnership (formerly the BID), commissioned their own design for a new north end of Union Sq. U.S.C.C. continues to proudly “nudge,” as the Partnership’s Karen Shaw put it, so that the area’s residents are fairly represented in the design process. Acknowledging that the limited space is shared somewhat awkwardly by both a playground on a lower level and the cafe above it, we work towards the most graceful solutions possible. We continue to press for a play space that is innovative and as large as it can be in the space between the pavilion building and the cafe area. We continue to ask also that more public seating be an integral part of the plan.

Opportunity to learn
As much as creating a new playground was my central issue and one that affected me very personally, it’s become just one of the many elements I’m now involved with that make up the fabric of my neighborhood. U.S.C.C. has given me the opportunity to actually do something to improve things, like increase pedestrian safety at the crossing at 17th St., get rid of horrible signage plastering the building facades overlooking the park and get the once-dreaded sand playground its very own playground associate to do arts and crafts with the kids on mini picnic tables. I’ve learned about the history of the neighborhood and that we have our very own (but unfortunately unlandmarked!) Tammany Hall, in its present guise housing the New York Film Academy and Union Square Theater. Who knew?

A Florida native who only knew palm trees and bougainvillea, I’m now doing walking tours of the park with horticulturists and putting in a request for cherry trees to flower up the place. The Mayor’s Office calls to see what we need. We pled our case before Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and Councilmember Margarita Lopez and came up with the funding for the playground. Amazing, but true.

The highlight of this never-ending, often frustrating job is being the carnival czarina. Started years ago, Union Square Community Coalition sponsors a free children’s carnival each September. This year’s Carnival will be Sun., Sept. 12. Better than kids in a candy store — my kids, Cosmo and Rose, are the kids behind the cotton candy machine.

Cast of characters
I get to work with the most amusing and knowledgeable bunch of characters who make up our board: Gail Fox, whose loyalty to U.S.C.C. has been unwavering; Barry Benepe, the creative founder of the Greenmarket (wow); Jack Taylor, steadfast defender of things old and beautiful; Leo Blackman, our amusing arbiter of taste and chronicler of C.B. 5 Parks Committee meetings; Aubrey Lees, avec pooches, with her straight-shooter, cut-to-the-chaseness; and Markus Buri, sorter-outer of all things financial and nasty, despite his being a newish dad of two and reverse commuter.

Advocate for yourself
I came to the realization that no one out there was going to advocate for my own children. I had to get up off my butt and do it myself and stop complaining. The pay is nonexistent, but the rewards can be sweet. I urge those of you who want to change things in your community to speak up and give your opinions and some of your time. Though things sometimes move more slowly than you’d like, you can see what you can do and feel rewarded that you’re not just a complainer, but a changer.

To join Union Square Community Coalition, e-mail unionsquarepark@yahoo.com, or “snail mail” at P.O. Box 71, Cooper Station, NY, NY, 10276. Check our Web link: www.preserve.org/uscc/. All are welcome at our monthly board meetings.