By Jeremy Walsh
New City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) is about to wade into the dispute between neighbors, day laborers and a Catholic charity food pantry at Woodside’s Hart Playground.
The signs placed at the entrance to the city-owned park reiterating in several languages that adults without children are not allowed in the playground have not kept the workers out of the children’s area, neighbors complained last week at a public meeting held by Van Bramer at the Woodside Library.
A mobile soup kitchen run by the Brooklyn-based St. John’s Bread & Life stops at the park between 61st and 69th streets and 37th Avenue every Tuesday. The park is a magnet for immigrant workers because it is right next to an off-ramp from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that allows trucks to pick them up with ease.
Neighbors said their gripe was not that Bread & Life was feeding the men, just that they did not want the weekly practice to occur at the playground, which is preferred by the charity because of its restroom facilities.
“I’m Irish Catholic, I think it’s a wonderful thing to feed the poor, feed the hungry,” said Woodside resident Ken Cullen. “I’m also a social worker. I know how it’s done. It is not done in a playground in a residential neighborhood.”
He warned that he had seen between five and 10 men he had assessed as sex offenders while working as a forensic social worker in Manhattan congregating around the park.
But Detective Juan Toro, community affairs officer for the 108th Precinct, said that while he had arrested several of the men at the playground, none of the arrests were on suspicion of a sex crime.
Brenda Elsey, a professor at Hofstra University, spoke out in favor of feeding the men at the park.
“There’s actually no evidence that it is a bad thing,” she said. “I have small children in the area and I think it’s a disincentive for crime.”
Community Board 2 Chairman Joseph Conley said 60 arrests have been made at the playground since the conflict between neighbors and day laborers came to a head last year.
“Basically they were told hey, stop, you’re harassing people over there,” Conley said. “The immigrant rights people are coming in, fighting with the police department, so that’s why we’re trying to work through the issue.”
Residents suggested Byrnes move the weekly food kitchen service to the basement of a church in the area to keep the laborers out of the park. Conley said he had floated the idea of making 69th Street one-way northbound to prevent contractors and landscapers from driving their trucks directly off the BQE to the park. Van Bramer said he was working on setting up a meeting with Bread & Life to discuss the problem.
Marta Chavez, an outreach coordinator with the Jackson Heights-based nonprofit New Immigrant Community Empowerment, said neighbors of the park continue to call the police on the day laborers.
“Harassment still persists in that area,” she said.
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