I first met “The Mayor of Myrtle Playground” Jamie Ramirez on a frigid day at the end of 2010, four years before I started working at Fort Greene Park. My running route took me past his office, essentially the boiler room tucked between the men’s and women’s restrooms.I introduced myself as a fellow NYC Parks employee (based in Manhattan at the time) and local resident interested in talking with him about how during the course of his work he tries to “go green” and use less energy, recycle, etc. He eagerly showed me how he created a barrier using a towel between the bottom of his cozy office and outside to prevent heat from escaping. Jamie became the model for an agency-wide Green Pledge campaign.
Jamie didn’t spend much time in that office though. As I would learn when I became Fort Greene Park Director in 2014, Jamie showed up seven days a week to volunteer as the caretaker of the playground. After a three mile walk down Myrtle Ave from his apartment in Bushwick, he would buzz about the playground cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping, removing snow, and raking leaves. I should point out that Jamie was paid for his labor on a variety of seasonal lines at the park over the past 20 years, most recently for a few months in 2015. But he would show up on days off and after the paychecks stopped to continue his cleaning duties. The last couple summers, when offered paid seasonal lines to help maintain public pools in Brooklyn, Jamie declined, preferring to stay at the playground to volunteer.
Jamie worked with dogged determination and focus. From a distance, one could almost see the calories melting away from his short, wiry frame as he hustled about ensuring even the smallest litter was collected. In Jamie’s playground there was no accumulated debris under benches or weeds between the safety surface cracks. I always knew there would be soap and toilet paper in the dispensers, and the spray shower would be turned on during hot days. His performance was backed up by data collected from official Parks inspectors who visit parks throughout the year on a random basis to check on cleanliness and structural conditions. The playground has passed every inspection since 2002.
Few things distracted Jamie from his awesome productivity with the exception of patrons who disrespected the playground and paid maintenance workers who couldn’t keep up with his pace and fastidious standards. I made every effort to keep the rest of the maintenance crew from stepping on his toes. Jamie would march up the monument staircase to my office door in the visitor center and plead with me to call the police to address issues such as overage teens in the playground or patrons who made a mess in the bathrooms. Sometimes the issues were too minor for the authorities so I would listen and thank Jamie for paying such close attention to the going-ons in the playground. Sometimes I would explain that kids will be kids and he couldn’t expect them to clean up the water balloon scraps that would collect at the base of the drinking fountain.
Photo credit: Photography by Martina Tuaty for Community Heroes.
Jamie only deviated from his seven-days-a-week schedule during snowstorms. That’s why, when he started coming to the playground only a couple days a week in April, I became concerned. I could tell from his voice that he had some sort of bad cold. He didn't have a phone number, but I would receive occasional calls from his brother, Angel, that Jamie wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be coming in that day. I last saw him in mid-May, where I pleaded with him to see a doctor and take care of himself. When the calls from his brother stopped I tracked down his address in Bushwick where Angel opened the door of apartment 1L. I was a week late. Jamie had passed away of Pneumonia at a nearby hospital. “Jamie was a private person,” Angel said as the news washed over me on that muggy evening. “He didn’t talk much about the playground or get along with many people,” he continued. I filled him in on the impact he had on the park. “He was the best volunteer we ever had,” I said.
During the final conversation with Jamie in May in the visitor center, I let him know that he was being honored as one of six Community Heroes a community-based public art project recognizing everyday citizens helping to make their neighborhood better. As usual, I made sure to pepper the conversation with some of my broken Spanish to make sure he understood. “Vas a recibir un premio, Jamie.” (“You’re receiving a prize, Jamie.”) “Ok, that’s nice, David,” he said, never one to take to the spotlight. And back he went down the hill to resume cleaning the playground.
Look for the banners showcasing Jamie and the other Community Heroes along the fence between the park and Brooklyn Hospital in August.
- David Barker, Park Director