Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Improving Our Parks with Historic Roots - How YOU Can Help!

By Michael Perlman

 Locals have the chance to get creative and feel like an urban planner. As part of an initiative to encourage citywide residents to play an active role in the beautification and versatility of citywide parks, the Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks) launched the “Parks Without Borders” program in November, and began seeking requests, where the public can log suggestions for improvements on interactive maps through www.nycgovparks.org/planning-and-building/planning/parks-without-borders 

The program’s goal is to make park entrances more inviting, boundaries greener with enhanced sight lines and cozier with furnishings, and integrate underutilized park-adjacent spaces into ones the community can call their own.

Friends of MacDonald Park with founder Steve Melnick in the footsteps of Captain Gerald MacDonald Statue, September 2015

As communities plan their future, it is imperative to rediscover how such parks in Forest Hills and Rego Park bear historic ties to their neighborhood. MacDonald Park, a green oasis along the vibrant Queens Boulevard between Yellowstone Boulevard and 70th Road, was named on April 25, 1933 after Captain Gerald MacDonald (1882 – 1929), a WWI veteran from Forest Hills. He was an officer of engineers at the Battle of Meuse-Argonne and erected bridges and dug trenches. On May 26, 1934, a bronze Gerald MacDonald statue was dedicated to those who served in the war. In 1964, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy addressed an audience of 700. This is also the site of Forest Hills Tree Giveaways and the 112th Precinct’s Night Out Against Crime.

Captain Gerald MacDonald Statue under stately shade trees, 2008, Photo by Michael Perlman

Forest Hills resident Steve Melnick, founder of “Friends of MacDonald Park” (www.facebook.com/MacDonaldPark) explained, “Council Member Karen Koslowitz allocated $6,000 for MacDonald Park, and we received an $800 capacity fund grant from the City Parks Foundation and Partnerships for Parks, which will be used for tools and plantings.” Melnick submitted a Parks Without Borders request. He explained, “The entranceways need to be more open and inviting, and benches, tables, and bike racks could be added to bring more people into the park. The cracked sidewalks need to be reconstructed and LED lighting would improve security.” He also suggested a senior and children’s butterfly garden, children's events such as reading and puppet shows, musical events, and yoga. 

Council Member Arthur J Katzman & Marcia Katzman Allen, Courtesy of Marcia Katzman Allen

Another generously sized park is Yellowstone Park on Yellowstone Boulevard between 68th Avenue and 68th Road, which includes the Arthur  J. Katzman Playground. Council Member Arthur Katzman (1904 – 1993) whose nickname was “the conscience of city government,” served City Council for 29 years. When the land was slated for residential development, he advocated for the creation of a park, which opened on May 27, 1968.  

After the Parks Without Borders program was unveiled, another advocate came forward. Forest Hills resident Alexa Weitzman founded the grassroots organization, “Yellowstone Park Alliance” (www.facebook.com/YellowstoneParkQueens), and has since met with a NYC Parks representative. She explained, “This is a vibrant mixed-use park, and there’s always room for more greenery. It’s nice seeing grass, lots of open space, and maybe even a gazebo.” Her wish list also includes additional plantings, benches, resurfacing the bleachers in the basketball courts, and asking local dog owners how the trails can be upgraded. Prior to coordinating the alliance, she launched a petition which references three gates that open directly onto city streets. She stated, “Allowing these gates to open and close and installing locking mechanisms would create a much safer play space.” In addition, she envisions introducing lower fences to make the park more inviting.    

Leo Ehrenreich in 1949, Courtesy of Community Board 6  

Ehrenreich-Austin Playground between 76th Avenue and 76th Drive on Austin Street also merits sprucing up, and residents now have a chance to follow in the footsteps of Leo Ehrenreich (1882 – 1962). Under his “one-man civic association,” he advocated for Forest Hills and Kew Gardens playgrounds, and the park plot was acquired on May 2, 1947 after Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and Queens Borough President George Harvey were receptive to his petition. 

Ehrenreich-Austin Playground in 2009, Photo by Michael Perlman

This generation has another Forest Hills-based visionary named Amy Long, who founded “Earth Citizens Club for Ehrenreich-Austin Playground.” She explained, “I would like to see our parks become a center for community events such as performances, a venue for arts and culture, and educational activities to promote ecological mindfulness and sustainable living; especially now when climate change and the environment is such an important focus.”  The grassroots group submitted ideas to Parks Without Borders, which included minimizing the fence, restructuring benches, and introducing a central arts installation and/or a mural. To date, the group has planted daffodils, launched a cleanup, and coordinated Family Yoga Fun Day last August.

Other local parks with historical ties awaiting public input include Federoff Triangle, Real Good Park, World’s Fair Playground, Lost Battalion Playground, Russell Sage Playground, Annadale Playground, Plaza 67, Horace Harding Playground, Pebblestone Triangle, Fleetwood Triangle, Willow Lake Playground, and The Painter’s Playground.

“Over 300 volunteer hours were devoted just to MacDonald Park in 2015,” said Melnick, who indicated that such a commitment by locals coupled with the city’s Parks Without Borders program has the makings of a success story. 

A modified version of this article appears in the Forest Hills Times: www.foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/27040805/article-Help-improve-your-local-park