Thursday, December 26, 2013

Of Parks, Inequity and the Flinging of Coins…

At the “Talking Transitions Tent” New Yorkers for Parks hosted a panel entitled “Four Immediate Ways to Equitably Improve NYC's Parks”. The panel consisted of committed and hard-working park advocates.

One of the panelists, State Senator Squadron, proposed that “marquee parks” (such as Central Park) share a percentage of funds raised in the private sector with parks that do not have private financial backers. He reminded us that all city parks exist within the same network. That any individual park’s situation affects all parks. It was an impassioned and intelligent plea.

Squadron’s proposal was hammered. The audience was warned of the chilling effect on marquee park supporters, of government interfering with the “democratic tradition” of philanthropy, of distracting from the real issues, and, that city parks were not in such bad shape anyway.

It was disheartening.

Here we were sitting in an enormous “tent” constructed by the wealth of billionaires, hoping to influence the next mayor. There was no time allotted to the audience to speak. We were in the county of Manhattan, home of the largest undisputed income inequality gap in this nation. Joseph McKellar, a panelist who represented Flushing Meadows Corona Park pointed out that there is a correlation between the racial and economic make-up surrounding a park and the conditions of that park. Too true.

Our parks can’t help but reflect this reality. And in a city of such opulence, that simply is not okay.

The Community Garden network has been involved in the care of Greenspaces for decades. This movement came out of poor neighborhoods and largely out of communities of color – with plenty of skill and agency. I doubt any Conservancy in New York City has much to teach us. But maybe we have something to offer them?

Community Gardeners know how to share. We are all volunteers who freely give plants, labor, resources and expertise. Our budgets are usually under $3,000. We get small grants and member fees – we do a lot with a little. We don’t feel a chill when asked to help struggling neighbors. We consider it an honor to be asked.

But neighborhood parks need large amounts of funding to fix broken equipment and to retool park buildings to serve as sites for resiliency centers, youth spaces, meeting and information hubs. Providing support to help make that happen- even one park at a time -would give hope to parks who would otherwise have none. Training by experienced gardeners (from Community Gardens, Parks, Conservancies, etc.) could support gardening stewardship by local neighbors in every park. It would beautify the city and give communities skills to learn how to truly care for and “own” their parks. Every neighborhood deserves their own "jewel" park.

Personally, I don’t believe the public good should have to depend on the largesse of the wealthy for meeting the basic needs of a city. I don’t think a democracy can long survive relying on the whims of the rich. That’s why we have a tax system, so that government, including the Parks Department, would have the resources to take care of all parks.

Dr. King said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Thank you to Senator Squadron for raising the issue in a way that won’t be ignored. And, as Mr. McKellar said, “Any vehicle that creates more equity is a poignant conversation”.

K Webster

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