Area boasts new parks, but residents say many older ones are run-down and dangerous
By Stephanie Litsas
As Community Board 2 was preparing its annual request for city funds to improve the neighborhood last October, resident after resident rose to complain about the state of their local park or playground.
Jose Grafals, the volunteer caretaker of Printers Park on Hoe Avenue, was worried about lax security, which lets drug users take over when darkness falls.
Homeless people were trashing Wishing Well Garden, said Willy Perez.
The Dawson Street playground fence was broken. And so it went.
Board 2 made park maintenance a high priority, but a Hunts Point Express survey of several local parks this fall found continuing problems.
Vagrants and drug users continue to make many parks unpleasant or downright frightening.
Teens stake out turf for fighting, frightening smaller children away.
Ballfields are rutted, fences are broken, benches are missing slats.
Nevertheless, residents of Hunts Point and Longwood are grateful for their parks, and use them well. After school on weekdays the baseball fields and playgrounds are full of gleeful children, swinging and sliding and playing baseball and tag.
Places like Albert Dorey Park (more commonly known as Horseshoe Park), Rainey Park (or Kelly Park) and Dawson’s Playground are havens for children. But eight-year-old Diamond laments the fact that she and her cousins Miguel, Justin and Jorge need to leave Kelly Park early, before dark. When asked why, she points to a group of men in baggy jeans and black sweatshirts.
The men sit at tables, playing cards or listening to music, some with bottles in paper bags in front of them. “Sometimes they have knives, and then we run away,” said Justin. “They’re scary,” Diamond says, and the look on her face becomes somber.
Motioning with her hands as if she were rolling a joint, she says, “When they come over here to do their stuff, we go home.”
Jason, the father of three-year-old Miguel (who like most of those interviewed for this story declined to give his last name) said that the area by the scaffolding in Kelly Park is generally occupied by “50-100 people smoking and drinking and getting high.” Their presence makes part of the park off-limits, he continued. “They’re always blasting music, so you can never walk around there with your kid.”
“Enforcement is the biggest problem,” said Lyzta Colon, chair of the community board’s parks committee, who noted that because Hunts Point and Longwood have less space devoted to parks than any other community in the city “every little thing is important to us.”
Curtis Minnis is one of the directors of Moving the Chains, a non-profit that organizes youth football teams that play in local parks. Asked about problems, without hesitation, he responded “vagrancy.”
“Once, a guy across the street was trying to call out to one of the girls to come to the playground,” he recalls. “He just wouldn’t stop-it was harassment.”
Another time, he found “someone passed out in the middle of the field.”
Africa Robinson won’t take her six-year-old daughter to Kelly Park. Instead, she lets her play for a little while in Dawson Playground next door to PS 333 across the street. But she says would never go to that park if it wasn’t right next to the school: “There’s too many adults doing adult things here–things I’d never expose my kid to,” she said.
Teenagers often dominate Dawson Playground, which Jason describes as a “drug dealers’ favorite hangout.” They use the basketball court as a place to fight, and keep younger children away.
“Kids are scared to play,” said Mario Martinez, 16. Robinson agrees, and notes that parents often aren’t around to make sure their youngsters are being treated fairly. Although the 41st Precinct is two blocks away, and police are always around, she says, “The city should have more of them looking out, not just passing by.”
Local parents agree that even something as simple as a fence would help, serving to deter teenagers on the street from coming in.
Other maintenance problems abound.
The fields of Kelly Park have “lots of holes in the dirt, and when we ride our bikes we fall,” Diamond said.
Days after a rainstorm this fall, holes in the ballfield were still filled with water. Three big puddles in the infield forced a girls’ softball team to take its infield drills to the grass.
Because the field slopes and hasn’t been leveled, balls bounce at odd angles, and one wrong step can lead to a twisted ankle or worse. Minnis says his football teams can’t use official referees, because an officiating crew would declare the field unfit for play.
“There is dog doodoo everywhere,” says Martinez, as he waits for his girlfriend to finish softball practice, and litter is left for days. “They fix the grass and dirt only before games,” he says.
The bathrooms in Horseshoe Park “are disgusting,” says Jason. “I’m a guy and I’d still rather wait until I get home.” The bathrooms have no lights; paper, towels or soap are rare. On a recent visit, the floors were wet and the door of one stall had no lock.
Residents think that a few small changes-fences, regular cleaning, and police patrols–would improve the parks in a big way.
“Our community is always left for last,” Colon lamented. Minnis agrees, adding that the parks “just need a little TLC, a little attention. We’re willing to do the work, we just need help.”
A version of this story appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.