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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
| Annual Meeting
Product Profiles & Directory