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American Society of Landscape Architects


September 2007 Issue

East Harlem Renaissance
Twenty years ago, New York City broke ground on a park honoring Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair. Last fall, the park finally welcomed its first visitors.

By Linda McIntyre

East Harlem Renaissance C/O Bruce Katz

In 1986, then-mayor of New York Ed Koch presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for a park in the northern Manhattan neighborhood known variously as East Harlem, Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio. The park, said the mayor, would be named for Ronald E. McNair, the second African American to make a space flight and one of the seven astronauts killed in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle earlier that year.

East Harlem was in need of some good news back then. The neighborhood suffered from poverty, high unemployment, prostitution, and the ravages of the crack cocaine epidemic. But its residents would have to wait a generation for the park honoring McNair. Money for park projects was scarce as the city’s political leaders focused their energies and resources on crime, tax cuts, and other priorities, and the vacant parcel designated for this park languished, becoming an illegal dumping ground and a gathering place for drug users.

Last October, almost 20 years to the day after the first groundbreaking, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe led a ceremony opening the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Playground, a science-themed park near the busy 125th Street subway station. The site is the same as it was in the Koch era, but the neighborhood, like so many others in New York, is in transition. McNair Playground is an emblem of the changes occurring in East Harlem—and in the city’s parks department.

“It was very frustrating that it took so long, but it’s a wonderful place and everybody loves it,” says neighbor Bob McCullough, former chairman of the parks committee for Community Board 11, the administrative district for East Harlem. McCullough, along with the late Mary Iemma, who served as his vice chair, and the late Marie Dixon, who chaired the community board’s traffic and public safety committee, worked for years to secure funding to build it. (McCullough also made sure that the park’s official designation noted McNair’s doctorate.)

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