By Paul Kelterborn and Sarah Sheffield
Every Saturday morning in East Williamsburg, all year-round, a group of neighbors assembles in Cooper Park for an hour or two of volunteer work in the park. Depending on the season and the weather, the task for us “Weekend Weeders” may be picking up garbage, watering plants, planting bulbs, weeding–we try to pitch in wherever we see the greatest need in and around the park.
It has always felt a bit uphill–each week there’s more garbage, no matter how much we picked up the week before; we find our toolbox tagged with more graffiti; pollinator plants that we’ve been nurturing are crushed by people looking for a place to relieve themselves or drug users seeking out a place to sleep off their high. We try to take these things in stride, knowing that public areas present unique challenges when it comes to maintaining them and making improvements.
But lately when we look around the park, it feels to be backsliding even deeper. Mayor Adams’ pledge to increase the Parks budget to 1% turns out to have been a fleeting campaign promise made to get elected. A long-planned capital project to rehabilitate the rundown bathrooms appears to be stalled. Minimal levels of staffing in the park mean that smelly garbage piles up and can sit for a week before getting carted away. The only cleaning and maintenance that takes place is the barest minimum-with too few park employees working extended hours. There’s no enforcement of loud parties that rage until the early morning hours and a recent shooting that sprayed a neighbor’s house with bullets contribute to a sense of a city spiraling toward darker days. When our municipal government fails to invest in basic things like clean and safe parks and a well-maintained public realm it’s hard to see how New York can bounce back from the devastation of the pandemic and the economic turmoil. Feeling pride and inspired about living here becomes more difficult.
Cooper Park is far from the only neighborhood green space suffering from disinvestment and neglect. Every park that doesn’t enjoy private sector sponsorship or a well-heeled conservancy is in the same boat. The danger is that, as a city, when we seem incapable of caring for basic things–public spaces, sanitation, safe streets–it’s hard to feel confident that we can handle bigger challenges and achieve greater goals. The Adams administration should double down on investment in NYC Parks and should be rolling out uplifting public spaces across the city. Volunteer groups like ours enthusiastically pitch in but we can quickly turn cynical if our efforts don’t seem to make much of a difference. We need to feel that the City is holding up its end–that will keep us motivated and believing that, in some small way, our trash pickups and weeding sessions are moving us toward a better and more confident city.
Paul Kelterborn and Sarah Sheffield are residents of East Williamsburg and the co-leaders of Friends of Cooper Park.
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