Governor David Paterson’s dramatic budget cuts to state parks includes a severe hit to a park he once blocked traffic to create.
Back in 1988, then-State Senator Paterson joined environmental activists to block the West Side Highway as a way to protest the stench reeking from the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant that had been built in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem three years earlier. Paterson’s protests helped convince the state to spend $53 million over five years to reduce the stink coming out of plant – including the construction of Riverbank State Park on top of it to hold the smell down.
The park, finished in 1993, sits on 28 acres and stretches from 137th to 145th Streets. It features a large outdoor swimming pool, a running track, a roller rink that converts into an ice skating and hockey rink in the winter, and fields for football and lacrosse, among other things.
But Paterson has a nearly $9 billion budget gap to deal with, and his proposed budget cuts include closing 55 parks and historic sites. Twenty-two others, like Riverbank State Park, will have their hours reduced and certain programs closed if the state doesn’t reach a budget determination by May 17th, sources say. Riverbank specifically faces its outdoor pool being closed, along with all of the senior citizens programs and cultural programs being cut and its operating hours being chopped nearly in half.
“The park was a benefit established for this community for having to carry the burden of the plant existing in this area. So to have services cut back is pretty significant. It means that this community is bearing the burden of solid waste treatment for most of the West Side of Manhattan, and when a burden creates emissions that make people sick and creates odors that make people not want to move to that area, then I think that’s a huge burden,” says Peggy Shepard, one of the founders of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a West Harlem-based group. Shepard was one of the six other activists that stood with Paterson in 1988 to protest the plant. And now WE ACT and other groups are lobbying to try and save all the parks that the state has identified as expendable. She says that Riverbank State Park, however, is a special case because of its history.
“All cuts to state parks are troublesome, but the cut to Riverbank State would be especially harmful. It would be a penny-pinching cut that breaks a promise that the state made to the people of West Harlem when it built that park in partial compensation for having to put up with the sewage plant at the location,” says Eric Goldstein, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Communities like Harlem have historically gotten more than their fair share of environmental burdens and not their fair share of environmental amenities. You’ve got a whole host of pollution-generating sources like bus depots that have historically been located in areas with less political clout. That puts a special obligation on the state to make sure the people of Northern Manhattan get the benefit of enjoying the few environmental amenities they have. Riverbank State Park serves a very special purpose for a community that has historically been underserved,” Goldstein says.
The state Senate and Assembly voted to restore about $12 million to the final budget designated for the parks. But with a large park like Riverbank needing millions of dollars to operate on its own, and a hiring season that begins now for the upcoming summer and fall, the hope of getting enough funds to operate at the same level the park once did don’t look good, says Lewis Burgess, a West Harlem resident and one of the five founders of New Yorkers to Save Riverbank (NYSR), a volunteer-based organization. In a meeting last week with officials close to the situation, Burgess and NYSR reported on their blog that the park’s new operating hours would run from 11am to 9pm during the week and 9am to 7pm on the weekends, a cut of 41 percent of the park’s operating hours from the previous schedule (6am to 11pm seven days a week.). If all of the proposed cuts take effect, the park will lose 59 percent of its program services, according to NYSR calculations.
“It’s just an atrocity,” says Burgess, who organizes the hockey league his son plays in at Riverbank. “To make such drastic cuts to this park, to this community, is clearly reneging on a commitment to improve this community. First you put in a sewage plant and give people a park to make up for it, and then you cut out the services to the park which offers opportunities to thousands of people in this community? That, by my definition, is the worst thing you could possibly do. It’s like getting a big ‘screw you’ to the face.”
State Senator Bill Perkins says that he understands the move being made. “This is a time of financial difficulty, so it’s a time to really look at our priorities.” But Perkins was quick to note that while cuts were necessary, cutting to this specific park, although not in his district, would be the wrong move to make. “Any step in that direction is a broken promise, and a very cynical one,” Perkins says. “There was a community struggle that the governor was a part of it back in the day. One would expect that the governor, who was a part of that effort to make sure certain promises that were made to this community are kept. He is now in the position to keep the promise. He has the opportunity to make sure that that what we once struggled for is actually fulfilled, and I would especially expect that a very sensitive and responsive governor that was engaged in this from the beginning to be there for us during this period. I would expect that he would take care of it. I would hope he wouldn’t turn around and go against that which he himself gave birth to.”