What would you do if you were given $30 million to improve your neighborhood park?
The NYC Parks Department put this question to the test at a Nov. 29 public scoping meeting that called for community residents to weigh in on how that pot of money should be used to upgrade St. Mary’s Park.
That large sum stems from the city’s “anchor parks” initiative, which calls for $150 million in capital improvements to be invested in one big park in each of the five boroughs.
“This is our neighborhood and we want to make sure that you define what you want,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes Mott Haven.
The $30 million question drew a crowd of 150 people into a jam-packed room at the Betances Community Center on Brook Avenue across from the park. Tables were set up across the room for small groups to discuss the possibilities, and officials from the parks department to tally them up. Community activities, safety, recreation and beautification were paramount on participants’ lists of suggested upgrades.
“Lighting is a key issue,” said Ingrid Gonzalez, 44, who is with the U.S. Coast Guard and has lived in the neighborhood for over 24 years. Many residents avoid walking near the park after dusk because they are fearful of troublemakers who congregate there, she said, adding that drug users and muggers are a legitimate concern. “Any given morning that you walk around the park, you can see signs of illicit activity,” she said.
Jeanette Sanchez, 54, has lived across from the children’s park on the south side of St. Mary’s for 15 years. She said that she has written to numerous parks commissioners, mayors and other public officials over the years to complain about the noise outside of her building, to no avail.
“When I open my door, every Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, it’s like being in a block party,” Sanchez quipped. People routinely rope off an entire section of the park to hold massive gatherings where they barbecue and hang out from early mornings until evening, she said, adding that she has even seen professional DJs come to that part of the park to provide a soundtrack for the fanfare.
“It’s hard because I literally leave my house on weekends because it’s so noisy. It’s so crowded,” she said.
Others said children and adults alike need more recreation spaces, starting with improvements to the recreation center and baseball fields. Many also wanted additional benches, bathrooms, educational signage and historical trail maps in the park.
But some were skeptical a public scoping meeting will help lead to the kind of changes the park needs.
“Thirty million makes me very happy and a little nervous, because I’m wondering if this is for us,” said Rev. Francis Skelly, the pastor at the Immaculate Conception Church on East 150th Street.
Skelly explained that he has seen how money pouring into new developments in East Harlem has had the indirect effect of displacing residents and he fears the same could happen in Mott Haven. There are already new buildings coming up in different parts of the neighborhood, he said—which makes him suspicious that the city’s real goal is to create amenities that will attract new people to Mott Haven, not to make it better for those who live here.
“I really hope this park is for us,” he said.