El Barrio’s Secret Gardens: East Harlem Has Some Unexpected Parks, But It Still Needs Better Ones

Wicky’s Garden, one of 39 gems in East Harlem. (NY4P)

Empty planters on the East River waterfront are in desperate need of upkeep. (NY4P)

For the study, the group spent a year measuring every inch of open space in the area, its size, characteristics and quality. The study area runs from 132nd Street down to 96th Street, from the East River to Fifth Avenue, though there is a spur in the middle that stretches as far as Morningside Avenue, though it does not include Morningside Park.

The reason for this is this particular open space study is being prepared in Partnership with Mt. Sinai, which is working on a major longitudinal study of more than 100 Harlem children and the relationship between their health and the urban environment in which they grow up. The New Yorkers for Parks report will serve as the open space chapter in the Mt. Sinai study, helping to track the link between recreational spaces and parks and the children‘s health. As such, the open space report was funded in part by the hospital and the Aetna Foundation, as well as with funds from local City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito.

More than hospitals, New Yorkers for Parks is interested in swaying City Hall. This is the third open space index the group has conducted, following a pilot on the Lower East Side in 2010 and the first major study the same year in Jackson Heights, Queens, another corner of the city with remarkably limited open space. In Jackson Heights, the community latched onto its index and used it to push for changes to the open space, like the creation of pedestrian plazas on underutilized streets, the opening of school playgrounds to the public and the creation of play streets, occasional street closures on weekends that create safe spaces for children to play.

“We created the open space index to give communities tools about their open space resources, which they can then interpret for their own needs and advocacy,” Ms. Leicht said.

One of the first major issues to tackle is connectivity. Building new parks can be expensive, even impossible in a highly developed place like East Harlem. But ensuring residents can get to the parks that are already there is easier and cheaper, plus it puts these amenities to good use. Proximity is already good, with 93 percent of residents within a five minute walk of a local park (1 acre), 82 percent a neighborhood park (1-20 acres) and 84 percent a large park (more than 20 acres).

Making sure people know those parks are there and feel comfortable getting to them is another story. That takes us back to Randalls Island and the Triborough Bridge. Some signage, lights, maybe even a wider crossing could encourage more local use. Better bus service to the island is another important option.

The same goes for all the amenities inside the projects. “There are so many things we could do with these spaces, we just have to find the right space and think creatively,” said Jessica Feldman, a research and planning analyst at New Yorkers for Parks who led the study and joined Ms. Beha for a tour of the area.

The community gardens, for all their bounty, present their own set of problems, including inconsistent upkeep and reliable access. Some have posted hours that are not kept to, some are little more than neighborhood club houses, filled with old cars, tools and tents, while others are bountiful gardens with planting plots available, even chickens. “These are such gems,” Ms. Feldman said. “It would be nice if they were all up to the same standards so the community could rely on them.”

El Barrio’s Secret Gardens: East Harlem Has Some Unexpected Parks, But It Still Needs Better Ones