Nilka Martell: Your Neighborhood Ambassador to Parkchester


(As told to Sarah Weldon.)

Nilka Martell, Founder of G.I.V.E. (Getting Involved, Virginia Avenue Efforts)

NY1 called me the “Mayor of Parkchester.” I’ve been there for decades. I love the diversity. And I’m a single mom, so it was really important to know that if something happened on the block, there would be neighbors there to help with my kids. When you’re in a community like that and you form those relationships, there’s no reason to leave.

Ellie’s Diner (58 Metropolitan Oval) is one of my favorite places. It’s a local diner and everyone kind of knows everybody. Then you have Step In (1309 Metropolitan Avenue) restaurant, and a Mexican restaurant not too far away called Taqueria Tlaxcalli (2103 Starling Avenue) that’s yummy. THAI NO. 1 (1509 White Plains Road) is amazing Thai food that has these $6 deals. It’s this real small place, so we keep it hush-hush. Within two blocks we have a dozen food options like Spanish food, Chinese food — it’s just great. People travel to eat these kinds of foods on the other side of the world, and I’m like, “I’ll go down the block!”

The last five years Parkchester has gotten gentrified. There was a store called Nu Look where we went to get our earrings and bracelets in the Eighties when Madonna had her rubber bracelets. They raised the rents, so they left. We used to have three movie theaters and eventually we had one and that one closed in 2013. I am a lifetime consumer at Metro Optics (1332 Metropolitan Avenue) — they’ve been in Parkchester for forty years. We want to support those mom-and-pop businesses and it’s kind of screwed up. Where that Fantasia Fountain (Metropolitan Oval) is, people sit and have conversations and kids play. All these buildings have these terra-cotta sculptures and I’m fascinated by them. Throughout Parkchester, there’s like five hundred of them — when you look up you have all these different sculptures. They have one that’s a firefighter, one that’s a guy that looks like he’s sledding, a guy playing an accordion. It’s all different, the little characters.

I spend a lot of time at Hugh J. Grant Circle and Virginia Park (Virginia Avenue), and they’re not parks the way we think of parks. They’re fenced off. So I create events and we get the community to pull out weeds or take care of the trees or plant daffodil bulbs. The past five years my nonprofit, G.I.V.E., has really been activating those two green spaces on Virginia Avenue. I look at parks like an opportunity to get people in the community together.

The only bad thing about living in Parkchester is the parking! Parkchester wasn’t constructed in a way that it promoted vehicle traffic. It was made so that you can actually get to a store without crossing a major street. There’s only two major streets in Parkchester, Metropolitan Avenue and Unionport, and they cross like an x and in the middle of the x is the fountain. So I’m fascinated with how it was designed and all these little shortcuts, like alleyways behind buildings. You’d play tag through all these tunnels and people couldn’t catch you; it was magical. I don’t know if my kids have that same experience, but I hope they do.