Deflowering the Bronx

Parks Department Paves Green Spaces Saved by Volunteers

"They are actually calling it the downtown Bronx now, looking at downtown Brooklyn and the housing stock and economic development occurring there," he says. "People say the parks there have not been in as good shape in a generation."

He cites statistics—dozens of greened traffic triangles, hundreds of new trees, dozens of capital projects, ranging from new comfort stations and safety surfacing to play equipment and the $5 million development of the five-acre Barretto Point Park on the Bronx River. He says a growing capital budget has actually allowed the department to develop more parks. Computerized work-order tracking and mobile units have improved maintenance, he says, and community boards allow for local input.

"We use a strategy called outcome-based management, where a trained observer rates the parks every two weeks on how they're doing," Castro says. "This is a cutting-edge management technique that serves the customer better."

But the department's response to its strangled operating budget—fighting for more capital funds—has serious ramifications of its own. Money for basketball courts, trees, and play equipment continues to grow as the financing for programming, maintenance, and staffing wilts. "They build 'em," says Quiñones, "but they can't staff 'em."

Worse, without the cash to operate the parks right, the department tends to focus on ready-made asphalt and concrete designs, which require less maintenance than green parks, but in the long run, naturalists say, probably need to be replaced more often for lack of care. This top-down approach was at the heart of the clash in Mott Haven last fall. Though a small group of kids from nearby P.S. 43 worked on a blueprint for the park, community members felt like only a narrow segment of the neighborhood was involved and that their choices were limited.

"There has been a great gap in understanding between the Bronx parks commissioner and people in our community," says Bubbins of Cherry Tree. "They see a number of conventional playgrounds. We see people participating in the organic evolution of the streets as preeminent. A tree planted by the community is worth 100 trees planted by the government or their contract people."

Parks Department strategy also forces a reliance on expensive, synthetic play sets purchased from corporations: the Alabama-based Game Time, a division of the massive PlayCore Inc. of Wisconsin; Quogue, New York-based Playground Environments International; and Miracle Recreation Equipment, a subsidiary of the St. Louis-headquartered multinational PlayPower, which has a special City Park Series, featuring stainless steel slides and "punched" PVC-coated decks.

This is one of the silent ways local tax money drifts out of the city even as new economic development plans are lauded. It is a far cry from local activists' conception of parks as neighborhood rechargers, where local kids can learn job skills and grow their own food.

"It's incredible to me," says Pedro Espada, the councilmember who represents the district and has given the Parks Department thousands for projects he says are still not open. "You and I could go to Home Depot right now and get the most incredible play set any kid has ever seen for $1000. The difference between that and what ends up in there can't be millions of dollars.

"I've had many conversations with Harry Bubbins where he's said, 'Give me $100,000 and I'll make a beautiful park.' It takes much longer for Parks to do what grassroots community organizations do in a minute."

Castro says things just take time. "We seek to acquire land that is not being used and try to get the capital money to develop them into properties, which we successfully do," he says. "Sometimes people want to see immediate results, and that's not the reality of the capital budget process."

In the past two decades, members of the Cherry Tree Association have turned a number of wreckage-strewn lots into refuges for plants and hawks. There's the peaceful Cherry Tree Garden, which is penned between the Bruckner Expressway and the Millbrook Houses, the United We Stand garden, which the Parks Department raided and locked the same day as the bulldozing at the People's Park, and Brook Park, where Bubbins says the group actually has a wonderful working relationship with the department. "The Parks Department is a schizophrenic agency," he says. "One hand doesn't know what the other is doing."

Since 1989, Cherry Tree members have promoted the idea of a Mott Haven Green Zone—free of violence and pollution, filled with open space and green economic opportunities—with the mantra that "connecting with nature is a fundamental part of a stable society." In all their spaces, they prefer labyrinths, pathways, and plantings that move in circles and spirals, not the harsh right angles that define so much of the modern city. They favor organic, reusable materials and reject the notion that nature means passive recreation and basketball means active. They turn nature active—as a source of food, job training, and community organizing. On a recent afternoon, Bubbins takes what to outsiders might be a paradox: a nature walk around Mott Haven.

He comes out of a brick building with a wooden staff, clicking it against the concrete as he walks over to Millbrook, where three girls are wandering across the pavement.

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