Recent services at two Catholic parishes in Bushwick included extra-curricular activity: rallies at two neighborhood parks.
On two different Sundays, one in May and one earlier this month, a combined 700 parishioners from St. Barbara’s and St. Joseph Patron of the Universal churches descended upon Green Central Knoll Park at Central Avenue and Noll Street and Heckscher Playground on Linden Street off Central Avenue — part of a campaign by the community organization East Brooklyn Congregations to get city officials to ante up $11.7 million for capital improvements at the parks.
At the heavily-used Heckscher Playground on a recent Thursday evening with other EBC leaders, Fred Delacuadra, a married father of three, surveyed the landscape. There’s not an inch of green in the 1.2-acre park. There are two handball courts, a basketball area and a playground, but the biggest space in the park is an asphalt lot.
“We want a field here,” said Delacuadra, pointing to the lot. “It’s concrete. It’s awful. We want to transform this parking lot so kids can play and run.”
Local churches want start a soccer league, but they can’t have one because there’s no field at the park, EBC organizer Matthew Marienthal added.
Conditions at Green Central Knoll Park are, on the surface, a little better. There’s a playground area, trees, landscaping, a passive recreation area and a ball field. But according to locals, the ball field, which is used by students from PS 145 across the street, is uneven and turns into a mud pit when it rains. The biggest complaint is there’s no bathroom.
“When my son has to go, he has to find a bush or a tree,” said Chaerise Ayala, who takes 6-year-old Xavier, a first-grader at PS 145, to the playground almost every day after school.
EBC, which is comprised of 26 congregations, schools, and neighborhood associations across five East Brooklyn communities, is seeking a $2.5 million investment at Hecksher Playground to pay for a synthetic turf field, inlaid track, adult fitness area and bleachers. At Green Central Knoll Park, the group wants a synthetic turf field, pitcher’s mound, dugouts, recreational lighting, and a comfort station, all of which preliminary estimates from the city Department of Parks and Recreation peg at $9.2 million.
Pledges and commitments
Funding for capital improvements in city parks is a four-headed Hydra. The city money comes out of discretionary budgets controlled by City Council members and borough presidents, and there is separate money the administration puts in. In the case of the crown jewels of the parks system, Central Park and Prospect Park, independent conservancies raise millions of dollars in private funding to keep those parks top-notch.
But with no millionaire benefactors stepping forward to underwrite parks in places like Bushwick, groups like EBC have to lobby elected officials for the money. And that’s where the Sunday rallies came in.
At the May 18 rally at Heckscher Playground, EBC leaders extracted a commitment of $1.25 million from City Councilman Rafael Espinal — half the money needed for the capital improvement work proposed by EBC. Espinal pledged to help lobby the de Blasio administration and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams for the rest of the money.
“I was born and raised in the district,” Espinal tells City Limits. “One on my biggest frustrations as a child was the lack of green space. Our parks are staples of our community and need to be funded.”
At the rally at Green Central Knoll Park on June 1, attendees said they heard City Councilman Antonio Reynoso commit to using discretionary funds to pay for a bathroom at the site. But he tells City Limits that’s not exactly what he said.
“They put me on the spot and said can you commit to $750,000,” Reynoso says. “I said at this point, we don’t know how much (discretionary) money we are going to have. I did let them know that Green Central Knoll is a priority of mine. I didn’t commit to any dollar amount. If I only get $2 million, for me to give half to Green Central Knoll would be difficult … $1.5 million for a comfort station is a lot of money … I want to be a partner in making that happen.”
The new city budget kicks in July 1 and the final numbers are being ironed out now between the de Blasio administration and the City Council.
Asked about the Brooklyn borough president’s commitment to the two Bushwick parks, Eric Adams’ spokesman Stefan Ringel writes in an email, “It is not the Borough President’s policy to make funding decisions public until they are finalized via the passage of the budget by the City Council.”
New day for parks funding?
EBC would appear to be mounting its campaign for parks improvement at an opportune time. Progressives have taken over City Hall and “park equity” has become a buzz phrase among the mayor and many on the Council.
The mayor’s executive budget included an additional $80 million in capital funding for “neighborhood parks.” Led by Mark Levine, chairman of the Committee on Parks and Recreation, the Council is asking for an additional $27.5 million for operating support for parks.
The addition to Parks’ maintenance budget of $392 million would pay for hiring permanent gardeners and maintenance workers — 15 for each borough — and another 150 parks enforcement patrol officers, nearly doubling the security presence in parks, city officials have said.
Around 70 percent of current parks workers are temps, many of them participants in the city’s welfare-to-work program.
Levine says “he’s optimistic” about getting the additional $27.5 million into the final budget, and noted that even though spending on parks represents only a small fraction of the city’s budget, the Council’s request for Parks is a big chunk of what the city legislature has asked the mayor to add to the spending plan.
“That is a reflection of the priority the council is putting on this (issue),” Levine says.
Tupper Thomas, the former head of the Prospect Park Conservancy who now leads the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, says she’s optimistic about parks funding under the de Blasio administration.
“The normal process is that the mayor puts out a budget for the new year and that always cuts something out of parks,” Thomas said. “Some advocacy groups have to spend the whole time fighting to just get back what they had. The big difference in the de Blasio administration is that they baseline funded everything that was already funded, which is amazing.”
The additional $80 million for capital projects, which was inserted in November by the Bloomberg administration, will be directed to poorer sections of the city such as Brownsville in Brooklyn and Mott Haven in the Bronx, she said.
But not everyone is seeing the dawning of a new day for parks.
Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Parks Advocates, says even with the Council’s addition the city would still be selling parks short.
“This year’s proposed $308.5 million in city funds in expense dollars for parks unfortunately continues a long tradition of allocating approximately a third of what the agency needs,” Croft said. “Taking care of parks is simply not a priority. It’s business as usual.”
Representatives of the Parks Department did not respond to comment.
Meeting with the commissioner
In the meantime, EBC leaders met with newly-named Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver on June 10 to press their case for upgrades at the two Bushwick parks.
“We found the commissioner to be very respectful. He seems very interested in neighborhood parks,” reports the Rev. Joseph Hoffman of St. Barbara’s Church. “He said the budget numbers are not available to him to yet so he didn’t give us a firm commitment. For us, the jury is still out until he gets back to us, and he promised he would.”
Terri Reyes, a St. Barbara’s parishioner and a local public school teacher, grew up in the Hope Gardens public housing development, overlooking Heckscher Playground. Even though she played handball at the park as a child, Reyes says she and her husband refuse to take their daughters, ages 11 and 15, to the park because of its lack of greenery and other amenities.
Reyes says she’ll know Mayor de Blasio is serious about funding neighborhood parks when she sees money in the budget for Heckscher Playground.
“He’s from Brooklyn. I’m from Brooklyn. C’mon, let’s get started,” she says.