Deflowering the Bronx

Parks Department Paves Green Spaces Saved by Volunteers

Collectively, local activists conceive of the role of parks in the neighborhood broadly—as farms to grow food, job-training centers that teach wood carving and environmental science, gardens battling truck exhaust, town squares, housing and retirement referral centers, and boat launches. In the face of a Parks Department budget slashed 40 percent since 1986 and a parks staff decimated by nearly three-quarters in the last 25 years, these people have taken on the advanced notion that open space and recreation are a matter of citizenship and human rights, and worked to blend the green back into the asphalt city on frayed-shoestring budgets. They all want the Parks Department to do its job more energetically.

"We do this for free," points out Harry Bubbins, deputy director of the Cherry Tree Association, one of four groups who had been working at the People's Park Exchange. "We do their work."

Al Quiñones grew up in 52 Park, on Kelly Street. He even remembers the name of the old parkie who used to give him the ball at the park house there. When Quiñones came back in 1980, destruction had overrun the place. So he and some friends began to clean. They painted handball lines. They bought cans of blue paint and painted the benches, the backboards, the walls. Soon the entire park was a friendly blue. They moved out into the adjacent lots—graveyards for crack vials and stripped cars—and cleaned them out too. Now, in the summer, the lots are tangled with crab apple trees, white pines, plum and fig trees.

"We turned a piece of crap into something beautiful," he says. But Quiñones describes a frustrating two decades. When the bathroom is shut in the early afternoon, he opens it. He scrapes money together for his popular concerts from local politicians and arts councils. He lets in Con Ed to check the meter, he cleans feces out of clogged toilets, he pays out of his own pocket for repairs. When coil animals in the playground break, the department removes them rather than bringing replacements; same with the hand rings. Quiñones knows because he is there. He is there evenings, on weekends. He gives out the ball now. He gets paid nothing.

He is one of the semi-full-time unpaid laborers who—in concert with thousands of welfare recipients who must work for free 18 hours a week in order to receive their benefits—hold together New York City's skeletal park system.

"They have no workers; they're top-heavy with management," says Mark Rosenthal, president of local 983 of District Council 37, which sued the Parks Department over its conscription of welfare recipients to displace permanent workers. "It's totally out of hand. Take 10 years ago and compare the managers with now. They have more managers today and they've cut the budget 68 percent. How the hell could that be? Nobody's running the parks. Nobody's moving up the ranks."

"What we're missing is a public sector commitment to parks," says Mike Klein, a former parks employee who is now deputy director of the nonprofit Parks Council, which is campaigning to raise the department's budget to one percent of the city's, from just over a third of one percent. "The Bronx tends to get shorted on the budget side. City Hall is controlled by the mayor; the borough by the borough president and the councilmembers. This mayor and that set do not see eye-to-eye. The budget's already low, but it gets pushed down more because of politics."

While private funding offsets the gap in the backyards of those with private funds—such as in Central Park—places like the South Bronx feel the fallout of the demolished public sector. "They don't provide services here because the tax base is low and unemployment is high," Quiñones says. "If it was a park in Riverdale, a park anywhere, they would serve it. Why won't they serve us like everywhere else?"

Quiñones used to call them whenever something broke. Now he and his friends just do it themselves. "We do a better job," he says.

One example he gives is particularly poignant. The Parks Department has a zero-tolerance policy toward graffiti. When someone tags the equipment, workers just plaster standard white or green paint over the scrawl, pockmarking the cool blue that makes 52 Park special. Quiñones has a photo album's worth of shots of discordant white splotches slapped on blue benches.

"Could they do that in Riverdale?" he asks, holding out one photo. "They can't! They're inconsistent because they're inconsistent, and they don't care. The South Bronx is the ghetto. What do they need to care? But we care. We do not want halfass work because we are volunteering for free and everybody's married with kids now and has other things to do."

It seems like a small thing, but small things make people hate the Parks Department. "I've had a relationship with the Parks Department for 20 years," Quiñones says. "We've been married since 1980, and they've cheated on this marriage enough for a divorce."

Quiñones's metaphorical spouse, William Castro, lives in Riverdale, a block from the house where he grew up. He worked for the department during the Koch administration in the 1980s, when he directed the Parks Enforcement Patrol, and during the Dinkins years spent a spell obtaining a master's degree at Harvard. He became commissioner in 1994. He has a drastically different view of parks in the South Bronx.

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