Following decades-long careers in the NYC Parks Dept., two retirees are continuing to express their love for the city’s nature enclaves by getting their hands dirty as volunteers.
Michael Feller, a chief naturalist for NYC Parks for over 30 years, says he knew he wanted to work in nature since he was 7 years old. After coming back from college to his home near Brooklyn’s Marine Park, he struggled to find a job where he could apply what he learned in his biology and anthropology classes.
But he recalls thinking, “I’d be happy getting a stick with the nails in it and going out and cleaning parks.”
So he headed to the Arsenal, the headquarters of NYC Parks in Central Park, to submit an application. In the basement, he stumbled upon a door marked “Urban Park Rangers” that piqued his interest and decided to knock.
“That was the right door,” said Feller, comparing it to the “Let’s Make a Deal” game show. “I chose door number three, and I got all the goodies. That was my dream come true.”
For his first two years in the department he served as a park ranger. He went on to become a seasonal naturalist and then chief naturalist – his favorite role from which he retired in 2014. He also held stints as a deputy director and deputy chief.
“Being immersed in it on a daily basis, five days a week, and then the busman’s holiday – my weekends, going back out to parks to enjoy nature, that was the real education,” said Feller. “It came in the 31 years after school.”
After retiring, he almost immediately applied to the Parks Stewardship program to start volunteering at the parks and keeping up projects he loved. While he no longer has the same roles in securing grants and shaping policy, he believed that being on the ground in a granular way was just as important.
Michael Agnello spent years working for Eastern Airlines until it shuttered in 1989. After he saw a job posting for a role in the budget department of NYC Parks, he applied. He didn’t get that job, but received a call six months later for another management role that started his lengthy career primarily in maintaining parks across Queens.
He grew up in Fresh Meadows, and after some years of working to maintain ball fields and pools across the city, as well as conducting studies on optimal maintenance crews for upkeep, he wanted find a role working in Queens.
His role as a parks manager started with smaller parks in neighborhoods such as Astoria and Jackson Heights, then took him to parks along Rockaway Boulevard before he started working to maintain larger parks in eastern Queens such as Alley Pond Park, the second largest in the borough.
Feller and Agnello finally met in person around that time after years of correspondence working for the same agency.
Agnello spent much of that time working under the former northeast Queens parks administrator, before stepping into that role himself for the last two years of his career.
After retiring in 2015, he was asked to serve on the board of the Alley Pond Environmental Center (APEC). While still working for the NYC Parks, he served as an ex-officio board member without voting power.
Now at 71, he is president of APEC’s board of directors and utilizes his decades of experience to guide the organization through decisions. He also likes to get his hands dirty by adding new plantings and removing invasive species across Alley Pond Park.
“It’s sometimes easier to get big money to do big gestures than it is to get the small amount of resources that it takes to stay on top of management after a big project is done,” said Feller. “And that’s something I wanted to help with.”
Earlier this week, Agnello spoke at the grand opening of the new Alley Pond Environmental Center, a project in the making for 17 years that totaled $28 million. He advised over a hundred attendees that walking along the park’s trails has the power to banish a headache and reduce stress levels.
“I like dealing with the aspect of actually going out and taking care of the parks. Not only do I feel better, actually doing hands-on work to make it more inviting for people who want to come into the park, but it’s also a learning experience,” said Agnello, who previously mostly worked out of the office.
Now a Bayside resident, Feller walks over to Alley Pond Park and spends his time polling and getting rid of invasive species. He says that urban and fragmented ecosystems are especially vulnerable to being unraveled by invasive species that compete with native species. And as we continue to become a more globalized world, invasive species threaten ecosystems everywhere.
Currently NYC Parks is working to engage a record number of volunteers to the city’s parks by 2024 through the Let’s Green NYC initiative. The goal is to create a mutually beneficial relationships in which volunteers, also known as stewards, maintain green spaces while improving their health and well being in the process. Those interested can search through the directory to find an existing group to join based on interests and location, or even start their own volunteer group.
“Queens has always been the easiest and the most interested in getting cooperation and coordination from within the department,” said Feller. “Even when I was not a Queens resident, I felt the sort of welcoming desire for that kind of teamwork in the natural areas.”