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Cast a Vote for Parks
BY ANNE SAXON-HERSH, PRESIDENT,
FRIENDS OF DAG HAMMARSKJOLD PLAZA

On September 1, a street fair filled Second Avenue and Dag Hammarskjold Plaza with festivities and the usual array of vendors. As sponsor, Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza was guaranteed $1,000 revenue per block by the promoter. Ten blocks, $10,000. The promoter does all the work and shoulders the risk. What a deal! Which is why street fairs have proliferated to the point where communities are saying "Enough already!" Even though these fairs are a source of revenue to the city and a "cash cow" for sponsoring organizations, a moratorium has been declared on permits.

We appealed to the city on the grounds that Dag Hammarskjold Plaza is an expensive park to maintain and that the burden of upkeep falls largely on the surrounding community, even though the park belongs to the city and is extensively utilized for United Nations demonstrations and cultural activities beyond the scope of the Turtle Bay neighborhood. We also asserted that Friends needed a vehicle to make the public more aware of our activities and the vital role we play as community volunteers.

Maintaining the Park
Dag Hammarskjold Plaza is the centerpiece of Turtle Bay and a gateway to the UN. When we were pressing for the park's reconstruction, we naturally expected our efforts to result in a more appealing park. But we had no idea how successful its transformation would be in terms of attracting people. Of course, the bigger the crowd, the greater the impact on services and resources.

Without Friends, Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, despite its magnificent new design, would quickly fall victim to neglect. The elegant promenade would become a garbage dump; the stately fountains would turn to cesspools, and the newly planted flowerbeds would wither. I wish I were exaggerating; I am not. For example:

  • The Doe Fund collects litter twice daily but there are still days when the containers are filled to the brim.
  • We spend $7000 on fountain maintenance alone, having the six fountains cleaned weekly for the six months of operation each year.
  • Last year, with the generous support of the Greenacre Foundation, we installed an irrigation system to water the Katharine Hepburn Garden.
  • This year, we are spending close to $20,000 on new plantings and garden enhancements, supported by funding from the Greenacre Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and contributions from the TBA.

Those are just the big ticket items; the contributions from our members generally go toward all the little things that add up-tools, paint, electrical supplies, garden gloves, signage, flyers, Skate-Stoppers.

By the Numbers, We're Failing
If I had my way, we wouldn't have to go to City Hall to plead our case. After all, shouldn't our taxpayer dollars cover essentials like fountain maintenance, litter removal and horticulture? The answer is a resounding YES! Other cities manage to create stellar park systems without passing the buck. Consider that Chicago spends $280 million to operate a park system of 7,330 acres, while New York City spends only $200 million to manage a system almost four times larger (28,000 acres). Although New York is paramount as a cultural and trade center, the city ranks 21st in the nation in per capita spending on public parks and playgrounds.

I do not blame the Parks Department for this failure to maintain its own parks and playgrounds. After 15 years of budget cuts to park maintenance and operations (M&O), park staff has been decimated. The statistics are appalling:

  • There is only one park worker for every 43 acres of parkland today.
  • Since 1970, full-time park staff has been reduced by two-thirds, and welfare workers who clean the parks are down to 2,000 from 6,000 because of dwindling welfare rolls.
  • The city has only 27 full-time, year-round gardeners to care for more than 28,000 acres. (Compare this with Central Park, which obtains 85 percent of its annual $20 million expense budget from the privately financed Central Park Conservancy and has 73 full-time gardeners for only 843 acres. No wonder it's the showpiece of the Parks Department.)

Inequitities Abound
This election year, the Campaign for Parks 2001 is turning the media spotlight on the hundreds of city parks in dire need of attention. After years of neglect, it is not a pretty picture. At the annual meeting of the Parks Council, an independent advocacy organization, I watched a slide show documenting the state of the city's 28,000 acres of parkland. Barren ball fields, cracked-asphalt playing courts, garbage-strewn playgrounds, and boarded-over bathrooms and recreational facilities are the norm. I learned through meeting with other park groups that even when recreational facilities are renovated, there's no money for program directors.

One of the most compelling pictures used in the Campaign for Parks literature shows a drinking fountain in Central Park fitted with a lower fountain for dogs. Next to that photo is another park showing a far more familiar sight-a broken drinking fountain posted with a permanent repair sign. The Campaign advocates sufficient funding to maintain ALL of the city's public parks, not just the crown jewels like Central Park. Few neighborhoods can marshal the resources of the mighty Central Park Conservancy-thirty years in the making-nor should they be expected to.

Make Parks A Priority
We're fortunate here in Turtle Bay to be able to draw upon the resources of a fairly affluent community and the generosity of institutions that believe in our mission. And now we're guaranteed the windfall of a street fair. But it's not enough. Not enough to hire a park attendant. Not enough to produce a level of management and staffing that treats Hammarskjold Plaza and all the other public parks as a long-term commitment instead of a pending crisis. The city can and must do better. While we strongly believe in community involvement, volunteerism, and the Partnership for Parks program, the city must cover the essentials, including effective enforcement of park rules and regulations.

The Campaign is asking candidates to pledge in their platforms to commit 1% of the city's budget to Park Maintenance and Operations. The current figure is less than half of one percent. The Campaign is not only conducting a media blitz but gathering thousands of signatures to show that the public cares about this issue.

We hope you came by our booth at the Street Fair and signed the petition. If you missed us, it's not too late to join the Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza as we continue to educate the public about our park and demonstrate through our activities how each of us can make a difference as volunteers. This is our challenge year in and year out, but this November you and I have the power of our votes as well. We must bring about desperately needed support for all of the city's parks.

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The Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community organization.

224 East 47th Street, New York City 10017
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