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

screen shot 2012 10 25 at 8 48 56 am El Barrios Secret Gardens: East Harlem Has Some Unexpected Parks, But It Still Needs Better Ones

Jefferson Park, which along with Marcus Garvey Park, is one of East Harlem’s two mid-size neighborhood parks. Notice the connection from the park to the East River esplanade, one of the few. (Bing Maps)

When it comes to creating more open space, New Yorkers for Parks looks once again to the housing projects. Many of them have lovely manicured lawns that are fenced off from the pathways that criss-cross the developments. The city’s housing authority does not want to open up all of these areas because they pose maintenance and security issues (more use means more wear and tear, more access means more space to patrol, more room for bad behavior to hide).

There are some places, though, where New Yorkers for Parks has been talking with NYCHA about opening up, with a favorable response from the city agency. The primary focus is lawns near entrances along the streets, which could take down the fences, add a few benches and become a truly inviting place. Such plans off some of the few opportunities to create new open space in the area.

Another focal point is minor improvements to the spaces that are there, such as increasing planting along the East River waterfront esplanade or or adding benches to make playgrounds more comfortable for families. Over time, greater capital investments could be made, such as increasing access to the esplanade. The FDR Drive separates most of the waterfront from the neighborhood, with access provided by pedestrian bridges which are limited to one roughly every 10 blocks.

Adding more bridges could encourage access, as could a truly revolutionary idea, debated for decades, to deck over the highway or somehow relocate it to provide for a larger waterfront open space that is directly integrated into the entire neighborhood.

“It’s a huge lift long-term for the city to improve the East Side waterfront, but it’s worth doing,” Ms. Beha said. “It’s a beautiful setting, it could connect neighborhoods, its an exercise refuge. And it really has to get done.”

But New Yorkers for Parks is not about to tell East Harlem what it should do with the results of the open space index. “It’s really up to the community what they do with this,” Ms. Leicht said.

Next up is mapping open space on the Upper East Side, Midtown and the Village, an indexing sponsored by Council members Dan Garodnik and Jessica Lappin. “Then we’ll have a guide from the Lower East Side all the way up to Harlem,” Ms. Leicht said. “That’s when things really get interesting.”