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American Society of Landscape Architects


December 2006 Issue


A Great Leap Forward
New York City officials and a community activist work together—and separately—to improve a park beloved by immigrants.

By Linda McIntyre

A Great Leap Forward Bruce Katz

Every day in New York City’s Chinatown, starting at about seven o’clock in the morning, people start to trickle out of their small tenement apartments into Columbus Park. These first hardy souls gather for tai chi or other exercise. A bit later, clusters of retired men—the park is known to some in the community as “Old Man Park”—wander over to the game tables for a few rounds of mah-jongg or Chinese chess, and mothers bring their toddlers to play on the jungle gyms. At lunchtime, staff from nearby courts stroll through the park, and after school kids play basketball and soccer. In the afternoon and evening, neighbors mingle and chat, sometimes bringing out birdcages to give their pets some fresh air, sometimes cooking a snack over a small fire in a coffee can.

People live in this park. It’s Chinatown’s collective front porch.

While many Chinatowns in U.S. cities are essentially business districts, New York’s, the country’s biggest, still has a large residential population (estimates vary wildly, from 70,000 to 250,000 or more). There are few other open spaces on the east side of Lower Manhattan, and the next closest park, City Hall Park, has no sports or recreational facilities. Columbus Park’s popularity and its recent history say a lot about the way immigrant populations use parks, the challenges of improving urban parks while staying true to their constituencies, and the need for a persistent advocate to articulate the community’s needs.

The 2.76-acre park, which opened in the summer of 1897, has had various names over time, including Mulberry Bend Park, Five Points Park, and Paradise Park. Bordered by Baxter, Mulberry, Bayard, and Worth Streets, it was designed by Calvert Vaux and built to serve the low-income residents of one of Manhattan’s oldest residential neighborhoods. It consists of a seating area with a two-story open pavilion, benches, and planting beds; a sports field; an east-to-west walkway with benches, plants, and a “comfort station” clad in stone; a playground with colorful steel-tube climbing equipment and benches; and basketball courts with bleachers.

From most vantage points, a visitor to Columbus Park sees a teeming tableau of urban vitality, not a luxuriant green oasis. Recent improvements have softened and greened up the main seating area adjacent to the pavilion, and the pavilion itself is being renovated. But the strength of this park, as well as the source of many of its challenges, is its large population of regular users.

Reshaping an Outdoor Living Room

In 2001, the park, while still overflowing with visitors, was in a forlorn state. Extensive veinlike cracks ran through the asphalt surface of the seating areas and playing fields, and weeds grew through the cracks. Without sufficient seating, many visitors were forced to sit on the ground or the curbs of the surrounding streets, or to bring their own chairs. Litter was strewn everywhere. Most prominent, the pavilion, fenced off for about a decade and accessible only to the hundreds of pigeons nesting there, was a crumbling eyesore.

Paul Gong, a computer consultant and community advocate who began playing basketball in the park as a teenager, joined forces with Alan Gerson, then a city council candidate, to form Friends of Columbus Park (FOCP) in 2001 to increase awareness of the park’s troubles and to position it to get some help. Gerson, now the city’s District 1 councilman and chairman of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Committee, says that in New York, management of parks is a political process. He and his colleagues are deeply involved in advocacy on behalf of their constituents’ parks.

The importance of groups such as FOCP in attracting attention and resources to city parks cannot, Gerson says, be overstated. “We New Yorkers are passionate about our parks,” he says. “We care about them like Americans in other places care about their front and backyards.”

Gong, whose affable and low-key manner belies his tenacity, still serves as president of FOCP. Like Betsy Barlow Rogers, Honorary ASLA, with Central Park, or Tupper Thomas with Prospect Park, he is the public face of the park’s constituency. He set up a web site for FOCP, and he’s at ease with both the park users and the bureaucracy of New York’s Parks Department. Unlike Rogers and Thomas and the conservancies they started, though, Gong’s group, like most “friends of” organizations, has limited funding and political clout. Further complicating his task, many of the people he represents don’t speak English, have little in the way of resources to contribute to the cause, and are not engaged in city politics in a well-organized fashion.

Gerson, Gong, and some allied community activists held a press conference announcing the group’s formation on September 5, 2001. They hoped to rebuild the pavilion and improve the park for residents and make it a destination for the many tourists visiting lower Manhattan.

Six days later, when the World Trade Center towers were attacked by terrorists, everything changed. With a sizable piece of lower Manhattan damaged or destroyed, Columbus Park, only about half a mile from the World Trade Center site, was an important meeting place, vigil site, and venue for public announcements in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. The Chinatown economy, however, reliant on more relaxed foot traffic and the tourist trade, suffered tremendously when travel slowed after the attack.

But the tragedy focused attention and resources on the downtown area, and Columbus Park was among the beneficiaries. In 2002, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, created in the aftermath of the attack, earmarked $400,000 for the park, and the National Park Service’s Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program made a $1 million grant for the refurbishment of the run-down open pavilion on the park’s north side.

But even with this infusion of funding, the road to a better Columbus Park was not without its bumps. Some measures, such as improving the landscape of the north side of the park between the pavilion and the athletic field, were successful and relatively straightforward. Resurfacing the athletic field and renovating the pavilion, however, highlighted differences between the Parks Department approach to managing parks—with community input, for the benefit of the whole city—and the desires of a particular population that has an unusual relationship with the park.

Community Versus Parks Department?

The main seating area on the north side of the park between the pavilion and the athletic field, where many of the older Chinese neighbors gather, had become bedraggled and worn by years of heavy use. In light of its popularity, its stressed but existing planting beds, and its proximity to the soon-to-be-refurbished pavilion, this area was targeted by the Parks Department for improvement. “If we had had more money, we would have liked to have updated the whole park,” says Hui Mei Grove, who led the Parks Department’s landscape architecture team. Large shade trees and street trees around the perimeter of this part of the park were intact and healthy, but Grove and her colleagues improved circulation, redid the crumbling paving, and softened the landscape with more shrubs and herbaceous plants.

The renovation was a bit of a balancing act for the Parks Department. The landscape architects were hesitant to cater to a narrow population with their design and risk implicitly excluding others. But the agency’s design process requires fairly extensive consultation with the community, and FOCP was the biggest and most active group involved. Gong, however, doesn’t believe he and FOCP had a lot of influence. Despite the community consultations, he says, the Parks Department operates pretty much independently. “They don’t always listen to the users and the community.”

Grove herself, though of Asian descent—she was born in Taiwan and raised in Japan—says that she does not have a strong background in Asian landscape architecture. But she did try to reflect the character of the neighborhood in her design. “We tried to give an Asian flavor to the plants,” says Grove, who is now retired. “I worked with the curator of the Chinese Scholars’ Garden on Staten Island (see “Interpreting Tradition,” Landscape Architecture, April 2000). Unfortunately, we didn’t have the same kind of budget.” But they did use a lot of Asian plant species such as katsura trees, stewartias, cherries, hostas, hakone grass, and bamboo.

Throughout the design process the landscape architects tried to be mindful of the park users’ needs. They maximized space to accommodate the crowds, says Grove, while adding plants to make the park a more pleasant place. Stones were selected from a quarry in upstate New York to evoke a mountainous Asian aesthetic and to provide extra seating, though Grove worries that some of them might be too big. Parks landscape architect Chris Crowley, also inspired by the Scholars’ Garden, carefully placed the stones in attractive groups, and when Landscape Architecture visited the park on a sunny weekday afternoon in early September, many of them were being used as seats.

Gong, however, says that some of the stones are “too jagged” to sit on, and he speculates that the Parks Department spent a lot of money on a feature that offers limited benefit to park users.

Grove was sensitive to the rhythms of the park users. For example, men playing games near the pavilion smoke heavily, talk loudly, and use a lot of profanity. To escape the annoyance of this, women usually sit in different areas, often congregating near the park entrances. Before the renovation they would sometimes bring their own chairs since the park lacked sufficient seating. Grove sought to accommodate this in her design by providing more seating, separate from the game tables. The landscape architects also designed new lamps with a dragon-head design and hooks from which neighbors could hang birdcages.

Gong is reasonably pleased with these improvements but wishes he and other users had had more input. He would like to have had a “bird garden,” a large caged area for pet birds, built in this part of the park. “That would have been a major attraction for visitors,” he says. He also says that some of the users complained that the design included some white flowers because some Chinese consider white the color of death. Overall, though, he says, “they did a pretty good job.”

Turf Battle

Another effort to improve the park was more controversial. Joe Temeczko, a retired handyman who had immigrated from Poland through Ellis Island before moving to Minnesota, changed his will in 2001 after the terrorist attacks, leaving his entire $1.4 million estate to New York City, to “honor those who perished in the disaster.” Temeczko died of a heart attack weeks after changing his will. In February 2003, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that most of Temeczko’s bequest would be used in Columbus Park to resurface the sports field between the pavilion and the comfort station with artificial grass.

This approach was not unique to Columbus Park. The Parks Department began replacing asphalt and grass playgrounds and playing fields with synthetic turf in 1998, and the agency is the nation’s largest municipal buyer of the material. The trend accelerated after Bloomberg pledged during his 2001 campaign to redress the city’s scarce athletic spaces by aggressively replacing asphalt fields with synthetic turf, which is viewed as safe and low maintenance.

This turf is a far cry from the hard-surface, short-pile AstroTurf developed for sports fields in the 1960s. New varieties such as FieldTurf and AstroPlay seek to more closely mimic the look and feel of real grass, with longer blades woven on a porous backing. Tiny rubber pellets made of recycled tires, and sometimes sand, are sprinkled liberally between the blades to soften the surface for children and athletes. The turf requires less maintenance than grass—debris and glass have to be removed, gum has to be cleaned off with a solvent, and the turf needs occasional grooming with a mechanical brush—compared to the rigors of keeping grass fields alive and healthy in the face of summer heat and heavy use. But, according to a study released earlier this year by the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, it’s more expensive to install, its functional life remains to be seen, and removal and disposal costs can be high.

Gong, FOCP, and a group of park users organized as the Columbus Park Exercise Group opposed the plan to replace the asphalt field in Columbus Park with synthetic turf. They felt the surface was too unstable for the exercisers, most of whom are elderly, and they worried about maintenance over the long term. The coalition organized a petition drive that attracted more than 300 signatories.

Gong hoped for what he describes as “a beautiful rubberized asphalt surface” like the one at Seward Park on the Lower East Side, which he believed would be sturdier and more functional for the park’s regular users. Gong and his allies also worried that a turf field could be heavily used by the corporate softball leagues popular with lower Manhattan office workers, depriving neighborhood users of much of the park’s open space during peak hours all summer long. After a protracted negotiation between Gong and FOCP on one side, and the Parks Department and a much smaller neighborhood group led by Chinatown resident and former businessman Paul Lee on the other, in early 2004 half the surface was repaved in asphalt and half was fitted with synthetic turf.

Gong felt the debate showed FOCP in an unflattering light, as if the group was ungrateful for Temeczko’s gift, which was not the case. “In the end we had to take the compromise and move on,” he says. But the turf still rankles. It limits how the park can be used, he says. The volleyball tournament that used to be held here has been moved to Seward Park because players were afraid of slipping on the turf, and there’s no longer enough space for the tournament on the remaining asphalt.

He would have preferred that the money used to install the turf had gone toward other park improvements, such as installing more bilingual signs—few are in Chinese despite the fact that so many of the park’s users don’t speak English—painting proper out-of-bounds lines on the basketball courts, or better controlling the many rats that haunt the park at night. Gong also worries that some rats will die and fester under the surface of the turf and that maintenance could slip if another financial downturn hits the Parks Department.

Gerson, who was involved in mediating the dispute, is more upbeat. “The community had input,” he says. “The solution was not imposed on the community.” The combination asphalt/turf surface, he says, accommodates a variety of uses and is aesthetically and functionally pleasing. Grove notes that the turf gives the park a greener look.

When Landscape Architecture visited the park in early September, the turf was sparsely populated, but it appeared well maintained. But when we followed up with Gong a couple of weeks later, he said that the turf surface had started to sink in two spots.

A People Pavilion

The run-down open pavilion on the north edge of the park is the next front in FOCP’s campaign on behalf of the park and the neighborhood. “It was a pigeon pavilion when it should be a people pavilion,” says Gerson. During Landscape Architecture’s visit, the refurbishment of the pavilion was well under way. Netting will be put in place to keep pigeons from roosting, the building will be more accessible to people with disabilities, and the lower section, which had been used as a Parks Department storage facility, has been cleaned out and reconstructed so it can be used by park visitors. Gong tried to steer the Parks Department toward adding some Asian-inspired flourishes, such as a sweeping pagoda roofline, to the new design, but the agency wanted to highlight the building’s historical character—the pavilion is original to the park—rather than its current use.

Gong, however, has a grander vision—he wants the pavilion enclosed, with removable windows of Plexiglas or a similar material and a heating and cooling system, so it can be used year-round as a community center, with FOCP comanaging and programming the facility. “It’s what this area really needs for the kids and the seniors,” he says. Constant use, says Gong, will keep the building from falling into disrepair again. And Gong sees little use in simply fixing up a building that will draw in few visitors during much of the year. “It has to be used,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s just for show.”

Gong is less concerned with the pavilion’s history than its future. He has informally run his proposal by Parks Department officials, who were unenthusiastic. But Gong is undaunted. “It’s a long-term project,” he says. “They’re always resistant at first. We have to convince them it will work. We have the same goal—to keep the park clean and well maintained.”

With more than 1,700 parks in New York City, the Parks Department can devote only so much attention to any one park. And the city and its parks are full of immigrants from all over the world, so Columbus Park is, in many respects, of a piece with the rest of the system.

As the park has been improved over the past few years, nobody got everything they wanted—there is no bird garden or rubberized asphalt field for FOCP, the athletic field is not carpeted in wall-to-wall easy-care synthetic turf as desired by the Parks Department, and the park lacks a coherence of design that the Parks Department landscape architects would like to have pursued. But without each of these interests pushing for their vision of a better park, the park would be worse off today.

Now Columbus Park is a safer, more attractive, and more comfortable place for its Chinatown neighbors. It offers respite for workers and tourists in search of a place to sit and take in the rollicking scene around them, whether it’s the media jostling for position outside the courthouse or a Chinese parade, and to some extent it’s a success story for the Parks Department in a crowded, underserved neighborhood. The continuing story of improving this park has been driven by a democratic process that seems especially appropriate to a place beloved by recent immigrants.

PROJECT CREDITS Owner: New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Landscape architects: Hui Mei Grove, Bill Gotthelf, George Bloomer, Chris Crowley, Allan Scholl, Doug Nash, Dennis Flynn. Architect: New York City Historic Preservation Department. Specifications: Susan Coker, Ruby Wei. Consultant engineers: Dewberry & Goodkind, Inc. Environmental engineer: Tohamy Bahr. Electrical engineer: Margary Aime. Structural engineer: Reza Mashayehki. Surveyors: Sandy Wansley, Richard Barry, Geoffrey Lawrence, Dominic Cusumano. Reviews: Vincent Macaluso.

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