When Janice Melnick graduated from Rutgers University and landed a public relations position in the fashion industry, it seemed like a perfect. That is, until she realized it did not suit her personality at all.
“Quite frankly, I hated it,” said Melnick, Park Administrator for Northeast Queens. “I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life.”
When she was first appointed by Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the department of parks and recreation, Melnick felt that Northeast Queens was underserved in terms of its parks and wanted to put her own footprint on the land’s grassy expanses.
She found success reaching out to the community and finding out what they wanted from their parks. The poor economy only allowed for improvements in small increments, but Melnick battled through and was able to achieve more than was expected.
“From the beginning my goal has been to try and raise funds to improve the park capitally and to provide free programs throughout all of the parks,” she said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to get businesses and sponsorships even in the tough economic climate we are all fighting through.”
Melnick has been instrumental in corralling adult fitness programs, large festivals, family fun days, games and rides for all of the parks in her jurisdiction. Giving city residents, especially children, an area where they can enjoy the outdoors is of utmost importance to Melnick.
“For a city like New York, there is nothing more important than green space,” she said. “Some people have backyards, but a lot of residents live in co-ops and apartments. These parks are their backyards in a lot of ways.”
These community backyards also benefit the older generation, according to Melnick. She spoke to a recently retired woman who was thankful to have somewhere to go that offered fresh air and freedom of movement.
“She told me that because of the parks, she was no longer afraid of retirement,” she said. “These parks give older folks a chance to socialize, meet old friends and to stay fit and healthy. They can be active or just sit in a chair and enjoy the view.”
This was a need she knew to be obvious in North Queens. Fort Totten was an army base and closed to the public for a number of years. Melnick worked hard to have it renovated so that the public could enjoy it, rather than have it wasted with dilapidated, non-historic buildings.
“We demolished 18 non-historical buildings during those major renovations,” she said. “We converted it to park land and it’s just beautiful now, overlooking the water. We want people to know that it is their park and it’s here for them to come and use.”
With two children of her own, Anna, 14, and Justin, 17, Melnick knows the importance of park land. She said they have both been extremely active since they first started to walk, and Justin has even shown an interest in environmental science. It runs in the family at the Melnick house. She met her husband, Bill Sackel, a park supervisor in Bronx Forestry, while in the training program at parks.
“We work with parks and that is also where we go on the weekends,” she said. “For hiking, picnics, little league games and just to enjoy nature in general. There are so many parks in Northeast Queens; we’re incredibly lucky.”
Born in the Bronx, Melnick came to Queens because it’s where her husband grew up. A self-proclaimed city girl, she spent time in New Jersey and Manhattan before settling in Floral Park for the last 20 years.
“Queens gives the best of both worlds,” said Melnick, referring to Queens’ mix of neighborhood comfort and city life. “It [Queens] is the city, but you don’t have to move your car to the other side of the street before 8 a.m.”
A love of neighborhoods is why Melnick works so hard to keep Queens’ parks open and loaded with activities. It is a style of life that the fashion industry could never compete with.
“Working with the community and hearing stories from them about how much they enjoy the parks is what this job is all about,” she said. “You never know what the future brings, but I’m very happy to be doing what I’m doing.”