Culture / Parks

Facelift begins at historic Longwood park

Samali Bikangaga

Volunteers from 52 Parks for Progress pose at 52 Park on July 19.

52 Park will get new equipment, renovated amphitheater

When the city went bankrupt in the 1970s, most of the Longwood residents who cherished the iconic 52 Park on Kelly Street abandoned it in despair. But local resident Al Quiñones remained undaunted, taking on the huge task of spearheading cleanup efforts and bringing it back to life.

On Tuesday, city officials took the latest step in the gradual resurrection of the park, breaking ground on the reconstruction of Playground 52. The Bronx Borough President’s office will provide $1 million, the city council $1.7 million and the mayor’s office has pledged to pitch in an additional $300,00 for a new skate park, basketball courts, handball courts, rainbow play equipment, and renovations to the amphitheater.

“This park has been over looked for many years,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said at the event. “But it has been well kept by volunteers and people who exemplify what it means to love the community, exemplify what it means to be resilient, and what it means to preserve culture.”

Dennis Dore, a volunteer for 52 People for Progress, the grassroots group that organizes events and helps maintain and improve the grounds, remembered the tough times 52 Park endured decades ago. The group was formed in 1980.

“That time, the park was a mess,” said Dore, 70.  “There were a lot of drug users. Our original purpose was to give back to the park and give it back to the community.”

Armed with some blue paint donated by the New York Yankees, Quiñones went to work.

“My first memory of Al was at this park and he was painting the benches blue,” said Longwood native Benny Bonilla, a renowned jazz percussionist who has played concerts at 52 Park, and once worked as a parks department supervisor. “The parks department went crazy, they didn’t want blue!” he recalled.

Volunteers worked out of the public bathroom that doubled as office space. Known as “parkies,” they acted as playground monitors, distributing basketballs and other playground equipment to park users of all ages. The one-time neighborhood oasis that had deteriorated into a dumping ground for trash, abandoned cars and graffiti—-as well as a shooting gallery for junkies—-was on its way back.

In 1989, the playground underwent a series of important renovations that included the installation of rainbow play equipment, an amphitheater, handball courts and spray showers. 52 Parks for Progress looked to preserve the South Bronx’s rich musical heritage by hosting salsa concerts at the amphitheater, featuring local salsa bands with headliners like Eddie Palmieri, who attended P.S 52 across the street as a child.

“We had stickball games and handball games and arguments,” Bonilla laughed, recalling his boyhood days with the pianist and bandleader.

But those initial renovations fell short. The amphitheater that hosted almost 200 salsa concerts began to sink. The wood that was used for the playground began to rot. Pools of water began to collect underneath the buildings. Cracks, weeds and sinkholes soon overtook the two basketball courts. Concerned parents worried that the playground equipment had become too hazardous for their kids to use.

“Fifteen, maybe 20 years ago, we tried to renovate the park, but it seemed like a good job wasn’t done,” said park volunteer Robert Rodriguez, 60. “In my opinion, we got short changed. Hopefully this transformation will be a lot better.”

 

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