The Case for Funding for New York City Parks
In October 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 35 playgrounds and parks across the City would be receiving $130 million in funding for renovations. I went to the Bronx to find out what residents though of the initiative.
It’s 9 o’clock on a sunny Sunday morning at Watson Gleason Playground in the South Bronx. Sweat dripping down her forehead, and wisps of her straight brown hair waving in the wind, eleven-year-old Sanaa Ferreiras runs lap after lap around a basketball court. With graceful strides, her small frame moves effortlessly as she stares straight ahead, determination on her face.
“I want to be a WNBA star one day,” Ferreiras says breathlessly, as she stops for a drink of water. But first she wants to go to college.
“I want to play for UConn. I think I’d be good on their team,” she says with an embarrassed giggle, her eyes downcast.
Sanaa Ferreiras has just been picked for the basketball team at her school. On Sunday October 12th, she spent the morning, putting in extra practice with her father, and working on her fitness and dribbling skill
Sanaa’s father, Jeffrey Ferreiras, has lived in the area all his life. He says that since the renovations, the playground has become a big part of the community. On this particular Sunday morning, the park is a hive of activity – a spirited game of soccer is taking place on the bright green synthetic turf of the multi-purpose field; a group of teenage boys takes turns shooting their ball at the well-maintained basketball nets; and squeals of delight punctuate the morning air coming from the swings. For Ferreiras, the park provides an opportunity for some father-daughter bonding time. He’s working with Sanaa to improve her dribbling skills. He looks proudly at his daughter.
“It’s what I always tell her: if you work hard, someone will notice,” he says, his voice quivering with emotion.
Like Watson Gleason Playground, 35 other playgrounds and parks across the city will be receiving funding for renovations under a $130 million plan announced by Mayor de Blasio last week. These parks are in areas that have been identified as “growing neighborhoods with higher-than-average concentrations of poverty”. The Bronx has the highest poverty rate of New York’s five boroughs. More than 30 percent of people in the borough live at or below the poverty line.
Just over a mile away, Soundview Park is in the final phase of a $5 million makeover. David Marin, a Bronx community leader and longtime soccer coach, is setting up nets for a children’s soccer tournament. He proudly surveys the football-sized pitch covered in synthetic turf, where a group of young men are engaged in a rambunctious football game. Pointing to the horizon, where the leaves on the trees are starting to take on the red and orange hues of autumn, he says, “There were over 350 junk cars over there at one time.”
Marin says funding for the park renovations would not have been possible without community efforts led by Bronx Borough President, Ruben Diaz Jr. Marin is passionate about the importance of parks to a community. “Just look!” he says pointing, his broad black hat shading his eyes from the sun, “On any day, you’ll find all kinds of people here enjoying the park.”
And this Sunday is no exception. The pulsing beat of salsa music blares in between innings at the baseball diamond, where a group of twenty spectators has gathered to cheer on the teams, who are dressed in red and blue.
A few hundred yards away, two teams of black men of Jamaican descent play soccer. One team wears fluorescent green bibs, while the other wears a motley collection of t-shirts. Play is interrupted at regular intervals for the men to engage in good-natured banter, alternating between English and their native Patois.
We're here every Sunday," says Michael Smith, high school teacher at a local school. He briefly abandons his duties as the goalkeeper to survey the park, nodding his approval. He says their games are much more enjoyable now the play surface has been fully grassed. "Unfortunately it hasn't made our soccer skills any better!" he says with a chuckle.
Meanwhile at the brick-red colored running track, it’s a big day for four-year-old Fernando Sedano. He’s learning to ride, and he nervously mounts his black and white bike, with its training wheels attached. His father, Arturo Sedano, cheers him on. Fernando furrows his brows in concentration, and starts to pedal. A big grin spreads across his face as the bike starts to move, and he excitedly shouts “Papa! Papa!”
On the other side of the park, Antonio Martinez pays close attention to the steaks sizzling on the portable barbecue in front of him. “I come here every weekend now,” he says, carefully flipping the griddle-marked meat. Martinez says the improvements have made coming to the park an activity he and his family relish.
In the City’s Press release, de Blasio says, “every New Yorker deserves access to clean and safe public parkland”. But less than one quarter of a mile from Soundview Park, Flocca Johnson, an eighteen-year-old high school senior, scoffs at news of the spending. “You can’t eat the park!” he retorts. To Johnson, this is money wasted which should be put to better use, especially since unemployment in this neighborhood is higher than average at 13.9 percent.
Johnson is playing basketball with his friends Mike Berry and Tief Santana at the James Monroe Housing Development (Monroe). A black do-rag tightly tied around his head and baggy black shorts enveloping his slim frame, he flashes a smile as he good-naturedly banters with his friends. Their basketball court lies sandwiched between the housing development’s twelve nondescript high-rise brown-brick buildings. Johnson says their games are restricted to daylight hours, “It’s dangerous out here at night. That’s why they have that,” he says, pointing to a large mobile light tower emblazoned with the NYPD logo, which sits in a nearby courtyard. In the South Bronx you have a 1 in 94 chance of being the victim of a violent crime, compared to the New York average of 1 in 246.
Johnson says he dreams of one day being a NBA star. But he has an even bigger dream, “I’d just really like for me and my brothers to be able to get out of the ghetto,” he says gesturing to his two friends. If he doesn’t make it into the NBA, Johnson would like to be a lawyer. But statistically his chances of getting a college education are low – only 14.3 percent of students in the Soundview neighborhood are performing at grade level in math, and 13.2 percent in reading. Although the boys talk animatedly of being rich one day and living in a big house, they seem resigned to a life in the ghetto.
“I just don’t see how I can be as good as other kids who get to practice on nice courts and have proper coaches,” says Johnson. He also doubts his family will be able to afford to send him to college.
Jeremiah Joseph has lived at Monroe for all of his 23 years, and he knows what it’s like to want to go to college, but to have finances stand in your way. Sporting a red hoodie and trendy sneakers, Joseph sighs as he describes how he wants to be a journalist. He shrugs resignedly as he says, “But I had to drop out of school. We just can’t afford it right now.” Department of Education statistics show that less than 12 percent of Bronx residents have a Bachelors Degree.
For Johnson, the odds of him becoming a lawyer are even slimmer with less than seven percent of Bronx residents having graduate or professional degrees.
Across the street from Monroe, Crystal Ramos sits perched on the edge of one of the steel benches dotted around the chain-link fenced basketball court at Story Playground. This playground received a major makeover in 2008. As she nonchalantly scrolls through her mobile phone, Ramos occasionally glances over to where her five-year-old son is playing basketball with his two older cousins. “The remodel of this park has made a big difference!” she says, “My sister is even comfortable to let her boys come to the park by themselves during the day.”
Ramos, a long time resident of South Bronx, says the playground used to be a hive of drug activity, crime and loitering. She says since the renovation, all of that has changed. “Now the playground is being used for what its supposed to be used for!” she exclaims. Ramos is excited to hear that other communities will be getting funding for their parks, “It’s a first step in the right direction!” she says.
For Marin over at Soundview Park, the investment in parks is more than just about a place for kids to play. “It’s about giving them a future,” he says excitedly. Even though he is well past retirement age, Marin says mentoring young boys and girls through soccer programs is the most important thing he does.
“They need guidance. They need programs!” Marin says. He pauses to reflect for a moment, and then continues, “We have to give them hope. We have to give them dreams.”