Health / Parks

From the editor: city says pay to stay healthy

Dancers get a workout at St. Mary's Recreation Center.

Responding to the twin epidemics of diabetes and obesity in the South Bronx, the city has pioneered free fitness programs in its recreation centers, engaging residents of all ages.

But City Hall wants to make it harder for the poorest people in the city’s poorest neighborhoods to use the recreation centers. It wants to double the fees.

In typical government double-speak, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared that he would not raise taxes to balance the city budget, then proposed the increase in park use and other fees. Translation: protect the rich; take from the poor.

In 2006, when the city first imposed a fee to use such facilities as the Hunts Point weight room and the St. Mary’s pool, membership fell 66 percent. The Parks Department claimed it just shed dead weight, people who had signed up but didn’t show up to use the centers. But residents stood for hours in freezing weather last year to gain one of the 100 spots in St. Mary’s free swim program, and both centers have waiting lists for their free after-school programs.

The Parks Department has done an admirable job of reaching out to residents, with its free Shape Up New York fitness programs, its free after-school programs and, most recently, its partnership with the New York Rangers to help youngsters in Hunts Point and Mott Haven hone their street hockey skills. But for much of the week, the centers’ machines and the St. Mary’s pool are off limits to those who don’t pay. How many more will join their ranks, if the fees rise to $100 at Hunts Point and $150 at Mott Haven?

Some people sneer at the notion that there are those who can’t afford those annual fees. They haven’t tried to put food on the table on $18,000 a year or less, the income earned by more than half of local residents.

Mott Haven Councilwoman Melissa Marks-Viverito, who chairs the parks committee, has been prominent in the fight to keep the city from imposing these new fees. For now the City Council has staved them off; but the Bloomberg administration plans to renew its effort to hike the fees in the spring.

At a Jan. 25 hearing on the proposal, only three members of the public showed up to voice their displeasure at the idea that we should pay more to use public parks. If this mean-spirited effort to soak the poor is to be permanently shelved, the voices of the South Bronx will need to be raised.

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