Deflowering the Bronx


The small bulldozer rumbled into the People’s Park Exchange in Mott Haven just after dawn. Police officers blocked the entrances as the machine tore up a casita and the labyrinth of tree trunks and wood chips built by local residents, who’d cleaned up what had been an open-air drug market known as the Devil’s Playground.

To officials in the Parks Department, this was simply business. They had finally received funding from the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to turn the place into a playground, and they were starting their project. They hardly could have known that the destruction last fall would focus long-simmering local rage over how the South Bronx has been treated for years.

Long before last February, when a federal agency accused the Parks Department of discriminating against black and Latino employees, people in the South Bronx, which is 96 percent black and Latino, were saying that parks policy systematically neglected their neighborhoods for reasons of race and class. In a dozen interviews, mothers, naturalists, old men, politicians, radical activists, community board members, Little League coaches, and former Young Lords alike say parks in the area are rarely maintained, chronically understaffed, and never programmed, and that officials are deaf to local culture in a way unthinkable in the more affluent North Bronx or Manhattan.

“They’re no good,” says Alfredo Nazario, the 89-year-old retired watchmaker who runs the free Bronx Boricuas Little League at Bill Rainey Park. “I have to do all the work there to keep it clean. Our field keeps leveling between first and second. It’s a big lake. You could swim in it. I told the guy, and they don’t care. The guy says they can’t get no damn clay.”

Naturally, parks officials have a different view, citing management techniques they say have improved services since Commissioner Henry Stern took office in 1994, bringing Bronx commissioner William Castro with him. Everyone agrees the lack of money limits how much the department can do. “It’s a budget matter,” Stern says. “The parks get run down, we receive appropriations, and we do the work. No one in this system is getting money and sitting on it. Everyone likes to feel they are underserved. It’s part of the nature of political discourse in this city.”

But the South Bronx is clearly a rare case. The neighborhood has historically been the city’s official dumping ground. In the 1950s, Faustian planner Robert Moses rammed highways through its thriving working-class blocks. In 2001, the city is unloading two new power plants there and bringing in the pungent Fulton Fish Market to clear space for Lower Manhattan real estate. Hunts Point alone is imprisoned by two dozen waste-transfer stations, a sewage treatment plant, a sewage sludge pelletizing plant, the largest scrap-metal yard in the city, and the massive Hunts Point Market, which draws 20,000 truck trips a week.

Subway maps showing green space in the South Bronx are painful. Only St. Mary’s Park is noticeable, minute compared to the expansive green in the north, home to Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Park. The district covering Riverdale in the north has 243 acres of parkland. Another district in the north, 10, has 3524. But in the one including Mott Haven, there are only 64 acres; 28 in the one including Hunts Point. Although Castro says the acreage is misleading because much of the northern land is inaccessible forest, residents in the south take little solace from the fact, knowing that while they may have as many parks, most of theirs are concrete playgrounds.

But complaints about the basics also veil deeper struggles over what a park should be. The grassroots groups who reclaimed abandoned city properties from drugs and crime in the 1980s say they want to remain involved in decisions about the parks they saved.

In the past two decades, this landscape so harrowed by landlords, waste haulers, and other forces from above has grown into an oasis of people’s counterplanning from below. Today, it harbors vital examples of the forms a radical green city could take, from the casitas that migrated here from rural Puerto Rico and serve as senior centers surrounded by homegrown pepper plants, to the end of Lafayette Avenue in Hunts Point, where residents created the first waterfront park in decades on the industrial peninsula, using concrete blocks painted cheerful colors for benches.

On Kelly Street, across from Middle School 52, locals painted an ailing park tropical blue. They surrounded gray handball courts with gardens overhung with grapevines, and started holding Latin music concerts that unite the community on summer evenings. On Hoe Avenue, co-op owners and other residents with no formal planning experience sketched alternative designs for an embattled park occupied by three tennis courts filled with pits as big as cars, and protested until the Parks Department adopted parts of their plan.

“We got big resistance from Parks and Recreation,” says Lisa Ortega, an organizer with the grassroots group Mothers on the Move. Ortega noted that Castro would always at least meet with them, but added, “There was really some static. They said it would cost a lot to fix and, looking at the area, why fix it when it’s in a drug spot and it’ll just get destroyed again?”

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.

“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.

“Look at this park,” he says. “There are no trees. It’s a total institutional gray. It’s almost like a deliberate plan to deprive the children of the Millbrook projects of any imagination at all. Some people say it is deliberate.” He calls over the girls and asks them what they’d like to see in the park.

“Nice flowers,” says Jennifer, 13. “A little garden.”

“I’d like to see some more colors,” says Jessica, 13.

The third, Jenny, 11, pauses and glances up at him.

“What’s the stick for?” she asks.

“There’s so much concrete,” he says. “This is how I stay connected to nature.” She considers this, and then says, “There’s an empty spot over there. Maybe they could plant some flowers there.”

“Why not tear some of this concrete up?” Bubbins asks her. “Do you think it was always here?”

“No,” she says.

“Think it will always be here?” he says.

“No,” she says.

“Think about it like that,” he says.

As he walks, he passes conscious murals that put the equation simply—”More Gardens = Less Asthma”—and folks call out to him, “He looks like Johnny Appleseed!” At the United We Stand garden, on 137th Street and Cypress, he finds José Rodriguez, 67. “We’ve been here 14 years. We built all of this up,” Rodriguez says, waving his arm across the peppers and flower beds. “This, for us, is a park. We cook here, walk, talk. There’s no charge for food. Whatever we cook, everybody eats.

“There was a little house over there, and they broke it,” he says. “We got all the neighborhood together to build that fence. See that fence? The government didn’t do that. We did it. If they would give us any freedom, we would build it up, but they want to keep it like you’re living in somebody else’s house.”

Castro says the department moved on the garden because one of the casitas there with water and electrical hookups from a nearby building was too much like a house and posed a safety risk, and because gardeners had planted on parks land they had no right to.

The saddest thing about the conflicts is that all these groups say they could be the Parks Department’s greatest boosters, a volunteer army of equals crafting a revolutionary model of a new green city. “I wish they’d jump on us and use us as an example,” Quiñones says.

Perhaps the best place to see a vision of what’s possible is at the end of Lafayette Avenue, across a busy highway, past an industrial lot creeping with barbed wire.

Down a slope in the asphalt, a sign is painted on the ground in white: Waterfront Park. Little pink and turquoise flowers appear on the street in paint, as if placeholders for real flowers coming someday. Past a chain, the scattered objects look less accidental; painted flowers, sunbursts, peace signs, and Puerto Rican flags appear. So do river birches, crab apples, willows, and cottonwoods.

Down farther, Nino DeSimone, coordinator of Greening for Breathing at the Point, which developed the site, unlocks a trailer, and a couple of boys haul out fishing poles. The Parks Department helped fund work there with a $10,000 grant, as part of the popular Waterways and Trailways Program, an initiative to develop a greenway stretching from Westchester all the way down to the South Bronx. The place is still spare, barely a park, but it holds the seed of what activists could do for the borough with the right support.

The community’s hopes are expressed in a mural on the side of the equipment shed. It’s a remix of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, painted by the Tats Cru. In the scene, the ramshackle street scattered with woodchips is covered in lush green grass and shrubs. Full, tall trees with sunlight pouring through them turn the ground a liquid gold, as a multiracial crowd walks and lounges in the park. The dark gray-brown river is rendered so turquoise it is almost phosphorescent. Even the apartment towers in Soundview across the way look radiant again.

In reality, the mural stands in front of a gate, shutting off the park from the industry that consumes the rest of the waterfront here. “They want to make it so they don’t have problems with the neighborhood? They should go to that school,” DeSimone says, gesturing to Middle School 201 nearby. “This is a tremendous opportunity for those kids to build a park. If they want a park that lasts, that’s the place to begin, rather than not allowing the community in the space till they finish it in four years, and then in five years pouring in concrete and a jungle gym.

“But they do not regularly extend that level of confidence so people know what’s going on,” he says. “That’s a trust issue ultimately. I don’t think people trust the Parks Department now.”