The Bronx and Its Parks: Imagining Possibilities

What could the Bronx waterfront look like if it was designed with its people in mind? And what can be done to rejuvenate the borough’s dilapidated and underdeveloped parks?

Questions like these fired up an enthusiastic crowd of 350 guests at the 21st annual Bronx Parks Speak Up! conference on Saturday. Bronx residents and members of park advocacy groups cheered as they heard testimonies, proposals, and speeches about improving the borough’s public spaces, from elected officials like Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver and City Council Member Andrew Cohen. And the enthusiastic audience clapped and cheered as they heard about changes and proposals for changes for the parks in their borough.

For example, Mychal Johnson, co-founder of South Bronx Unite, a coalition of South Bronx residents, and organizations and their allies, spoke passionately over a series of colorful renderings filled in with bright hues of green and blue—part of a proposal to rebuild six waterfront locations in the South Bronx. The renderings showed what the Bronx waterfront would look like if it wasn’t lined by old industrial buildings.

Among the sites Johnson listed was the 132nd Street Pier, where people have to crawl under a fence to enjoy fishing in their own neighborhood. According to Johnson, even though the Bronx is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides and is 25% parkland, the borough does not have waterfront access. “We don’t see the kind of advocacy for green space in the South Bronx like we see in other places of the city,” Johnson said. “This is a problem.”

Dan Johnson, the chief of staff for Council Member Andrew Cohen, urged Bronx residents to figure out ways they can push to make their neighborhood parks better—advocating for improvements in their community by contacting local elected officials and using participatory budgeting to make sure their tax dollars are being spent on issues that they care about, like parks.

“People have the opportunity to decide what they have in their district,” Johnson said.

In between spoonfuls of salad, his audience nodded in agreement.

City Council Member Andrew Cohen, who represents the 11th district of the Bronx— which includes the neighborhoods of Kingsbridge, Norwood, Riverdale, Van Cortlandt Village, Wakefield, Woodlawn, and Bedford Park—spoke about parks projects he recently completed, like building a skateboard park in the Williamsbridge Oval in Norwood and a playground in Van Cortlandt Park, on the corner of Broadway and Mosholu Avenue.

The underlying theme of the day was the lack of adequate parks facilities in the borough. “There’s a lot of work to be done” said Cohen, who is a parks advocate and former board member of the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park parks group.

Doug Condit, a member of “Friends of the Oval”—an advocacy group that supports the Williamsbridge Oval, a green space over a dried-up reservoir in Norwood—said that members of the community have been advocating for a skating facility in the park for a decade, and are finally seeing their wish materialize.

Condit, who has lived in Norwood for more than 40 years and is involved in the parks community, said that events like the Bronx Parks Speak Up! conference helps organizations like his get their issues heard. They serve as an annual report card for Bronx parks, he pointed out, and, as a networking event, they serve as a place where advocates are able to meet elected officials and put a face behind an email address.

“This is how stuff gets done,” Condit said.

Some parks advocates at the conference seemed to recognize that Bronx parks generally are inferior to parks in other parts of the city. But they are focused on how to catch up, by developing Bronx resources further to spark change. For example, Russell LeCount, director of development at Bissel Gardens, a five-block radius of green space in Wakefield, pointed out that programs at the gardens provide residents with necessary skills, such as recycling and urban farming, and they also give children something to do. Bissel Gardens —comprised of a community garden, farmer’s market, a children’s garden, a gazebo, and two commercial greenhouses—is an example of what can be done with green space in the Bronx, said LeCount.

“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s more about community, health, and stewarding the Earth.”