By Kenneth Kowald
Even during the “good” times of some of the late 1990s, the Department of Parks and Recreation was not blessed with much money and staff. In comparisons made over the years by environmental groups, New York City was always below the national average of the money spent on parks by other major cities.
Since 1990 the department’s budget has decreased 15 percent, while other vital city services have increased. Yet according to “The Encyclopedia of New York City,” we have the largest urban park system in the United States. So the record has not been great.
Today, of course, things are far worse. Parks is taking the hard cuts in the city budget along with every other department.
In spite of this sad record, much has been done to enhance our wonderful parks system, especially in Queens. Henry Stern, who was former Mayor Ed Koch’s last parks commissioner and served again in that capacity during former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s two terms, was a demon for protecting and adding parkland.
In the past decade, more than 2,500 acres have been added. Stern’s successor, Adrian Benepe, is in that great tradition. It is due to the perseverance of these two and the dedicated staffs (diminished though they may be) that the parks system is in generally good shape.
Benepe is a very interesting young man (he is in his 40s). A native New Yorker, he was 15 when he began collecting trash and mopping locker rooms in one of the city parks. Then he was a pushcart vendor in the parks and later became an urban park ranger. When he graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism about 20 years ago, he received the school’s highest honor, a Pulitzer scholarship, which allowed him to work in Poland and Germany.
When he returned to the States, he worked for a short time as a newspaperman, but public service called again. He had a long and distinguished career in the Parks Department with increasing responsibilities before Mayor Mike Bloomberg, in an appointment universally hailed, made him the commissioner.
Look around you to see what Stern and Benepe and their staffs have been able to accomplish. Not all is top-notch, but the effort and the commitment are there and in many cases the results are impressive.
Take Forest Park. In recent years, Jackson Pond and the Buddy Monument areas have been beautifully renovated. A new bridle path is in place. Signage has improved greatly. Plants and trees seem to be in better shape than ever, and the entrances to the park — the gates, as they are called — are well done. Over all, there is a sense of caring for these wonderful green spaces.
The old golf clubhouse was elegantly and efficiently restored, and One Forest Park (what a great address) is the home of the Queens Council on the Arts and a place for many events. Victory Field is undergoing a $1.5 million overhaul, which is expected to be completed this spring.
Let us not forget the GreenStreets program, which has turned so many forlorn concrete triangles and other barren spaces in Queens and the rest of the city into places of green beauty. With the help of local residents — because Parks cannot do it all, even in the best of times — these spots (and there seem to be more of them all the time) have survived even severe drought.
Local help also is needed in dry times for the thousands of trees Parks has planted along so many streets in Queens. Look at Union Turnpike or Woodhaven Boulevard, for example.
In many places, thanks to the plantings, they are very green indeed, but there are still areas on these streets that could use some trees, as could Queens Boulevard. Parks can always use more volunteers. So if you have the time and energy, why not help?
Here’s hats off to all the “parkies,” whatever rank they may hold. Beyond question, they enhance the quality of all our lives.