Dear Fort Greene Park Community,
One of the greatest joys of my position as Director of Fort Greene Park involves the support I get from the community to fulfill the essential elements of my job description: keeping the park clean, green, and safe. There’s a lot of love for this park—harnessing that passion in constructive ways is far easier with an incredible partner in the Fort Greene Park Conservancy. In 2017, the partnership between NYC Parks and the Conservancy yielded a variety of successful collaborations, from extended summer hours at the Visitor Center to helping ensure broad and extensive public input on the design of Parks without Borders (PWB). The $10.5 million in capital funding from PWB will bring long overdue upgrades to the Myrtle Avenue corridor, including enhancements to entrances, sidewalks, and popular activities such as basketball, barbecuing, and fitness.
In this letter, I want to highlight two projects—Amanda Patenaude’s glass mosaic and newly refurbished gardens—that really underscore the sense of ownership our neighbors feel over this 30-acre gem. I have a terrific and dedicated group of maintenance workers here, but to really make this place thrive, we look to help from beyond Olmsted and Vaux’s perimeter stone wall.
Not long after I entered the walls of the park three years ago this month on my first day on the job, the phone rang in the Visitor Center. A reporter on the other end wanted to talk glass. “What’s with all the broken glass fragments strewn across the joggers path?” the reporter asked. Her second question, “What are you going to do about it?” caught me a little off guard and prompted me to think of a solution. I talked about how we would be forming glass patrols, and how there might be a creative way to reuse or recycle the pieces.
As soon as the snow cleared in my first spring, volunteers started sifting through the compacted hardpan of the joggers path. The job had an archaeological bent, as it was clear from the logos and shapes of the fragments that this glass wasn’t littered overnight. Some pieces looked like bottle scraps from an ancient apothecary shop. Pennies mixed in with the glass often dated between the 1940 and 1970s, a period when the park didn’t have quite the level of maintenance attention it does now. Each volunteer group would return to the Visitor Center with buckets of the glass. We could have easily thrown it out, but I kept it in the hopes we could figure out a way to turn the irritating maintenance challenge into an opportunity to build awareness and public art. Conservancy board member Danielle Levoit and staff members Julian Macrone and Helen Song soon identified a local artist, Amanda Patenaude, associated with local studio Urban Glass. The collaboration was a terrific success. At the end of 2015, Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver and Amanda hung ornaments made from the glass on the holiday tree in the Myrtle and Washington Plaza.
Amanda’s involvement didn’t stop there. She proposed creating a mosaic depicting a map of the park within an underutilized stone basin in the west wing of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument Plaza. Amanda saw this as a community-driven process so she set up a tent after Conservancy kids concerts and at the Greenmarket where she asked patrons to provide thoughts and draw images that responded to the question: “What do you love about the park?” Those words and pictures were then transcribed onto the glass pieces that would eventually form the mosaic. I encourage you to visit the plaza wing to see how our community responded. Amanda’s “One Map of Many Moments,” is on display through June 2018.
Volunteerism—close to 5,000 hours in 2017—tackles more than just glass collection. Every Thursday and Saturday, a group of neighbors shows up to tend to park gardens as part of the Conservancy’s Volunteer Gardener Program. We launched this initiative at a time when the park didn’t have a full-time gardener and yet had 30 gardens, including the dazzling landscaped beds installed as part of the $2.5 million Willoughby entrance reconstruction in 2016. As many green thumbs know, a garden is never static or finished. There are a lot of small, ongoing maintenance tasks required. It’s a blessing to have a volunteer crew who I can count on from the last frost in March to the first in December to prune, plant, transplant, water, weed, and mulch.
When spring arrived in 2017, a cascade of color washed across the landscape. The wave started in April around the Monument Plaza as 5,000 daffodil bulbs burst into life, planted by volunteers in fall 2016. Much of the planting the last couple years has focused on the inclusion of native perennials and shrubs to create a more natural-looking aesthetic and build the park’s ecosystem. At the edge of the tennis courts and the border of the Fort Putnam Redoubt, species like Anise hyssop, Joe Pye Weed, and Milkweed bloomed in late spring and summer 2017, and were soon teeming with life. I don’t remember nearly as many butterfly species, including many Monarch butterflies, during my first two summers here. The tennis court project was not only installed by volunteers, but also designed pro-bono by local landscape designers Mackenzie Younger and Johnny Kunen of Native NY Gardens. The planting wave continued this past fall under the direction of new Fort Greene Park gardener Maxine Webb as the volunteer gardeners added 3,000 perennials, 280 shrubs, and 2,600 bulbs, mainly focusing on filling in gaps at the entrances along Dekalb Avenue. The vision of how these new plantings will enliven the park come spring helps pull me through even the chilliest NYC winter.
If our community can step up with such enthusiasm and intention to collect and repurpose glass pieces and pull weeds, I look with anticipation at what we can accomplish when we work together to address some of the larger and thornier park management challenges. Beneath the love so many feel for Fort Greene Park, I know there are concerns and a sense of foreboding about how, for the example, the park will be able to balance pets and people and active with passive recreation as our neighborhood continues to grow. The feedback I get—whether a complaint, a compliment, or a question—shows that this community by and large cares about and is aware of the challenges our park faces. That awareness fills me with optimism; the answers and means to address these long-standing usage questions will require the cooperation of all of us.
I remember back to the start of the year on a frigid February evening when nearly 100 neighbors turned out to weigh in in on the Parks without Borders design at the Ingersoll Community Center. The feedback received led to the incorporation of needed improvements like a water feature, expanded BBQ area with grills, lighting, and more adult/senior fitness equipment in the final design.
In the year ahead, expect to hear from me and the Conservancy about how we can channel the love for our park into more productive conversations and ultimately strategies to keep this park a thriving community hub for decades to come.
Happy holidays and thanks for a great year.
Fort Greene Park Director