Standing at the corner of 125th Street and 2nd Avenue, no one would ever guess that this was the gateway to one of East Harlem’s greatest open space assets. Even on a warm fall day, with the sun shining on the intersection, it is an inhospitable place for man or beast. Sedans, delivery trucks, minivans, gypsy cabs, 18-wheelers, what seems like half the vehicles in Manhattan rush by, honking and screeching, onto the Triborough Bridge. There is no signage, no walkways, no foliage directing—certainly not inviting—pedestrians across the bridge and onto Randalls Island.
The 265-acre landmass nestled between the South Bronx, East Harlem and Astoria is a wonderland of ball fields, tennis courts, venues, picnic areas and rolling lawns. It is, after the just-as-close, just-as-far northern end of Central Park, about the best parkland available to residents of East Harlem. Yet geographic and, more importantly, infrastructural impediments have made Randalls Island all but inaccessible for a low-income community desperately in need of open space.
“Just look at this tangle of roads,” Alyson Beha, director of research planning and policy for New Yorkers for Parks, said during a recent tour of East Harlem’s open space. “There are these large recreational facilities that border East Harlem, but it can be very difficult in terms of people being able to access them. We’ve got some real wayfinding issues.”
It is well known that East Harlem has some of the lowest levels of parkland per resident in the city, as might be expected in a dense, under-served neighborhood. A new year-long study of the area by New Yorkers for Parks only illustrates how barren East Harlem really is—while also revealing a number of unexpected oases that provide a respite for locals who otherwise have few options when it comes to outdoor recreation and relaxation.
All told, the area has a little less than half as much open space as New Yorkers for Parks recommends, according to the nonprofit’s Open Space Index. The index suggests at least 2.5 acre per 1,000 residents. East Harlem has 1.2 acres per 1,000 residents. Passive open space, where residents would relax, walk, sit and talk, fairs somewhat better than active open space, for running and playing. The neighborhood has 122 acres of passive spaces, which come out to about 60 percent of the recommended amount for its population. This is compared to 40 acres of active spaces, which is 30 percent the recommended amount for the area.
“This community, like many in New York City lacks crucial open space resources,” Holly Leicht, New Yorkers for Parks executive director, said in a phone interview.
But Harlem’s legacy of civic bureaucracy and neglect has actually created a few positive features for the neighborhood, as the community has turned trouble spots into amenities. East Harlem has long been home to the city’s public housing developments—East River Houses was one of the very first projects developed by Mayor LaGuardia and the WPA. While people may complain about the look and feel of the projects, they do have a wealth of amenities, including playgrounds, basketball courts and community centers.
New Yorkers for Parks recommends 1 play area per 1,250 children in a neighborhood. East Harlem has 5.4. The group suggests 5 athletic courts per 10,000 residents. East Harlem averages 8.4. Less impressive, but still beating the mean, are athletic fields, at 2.1 per 10,000 residents in East Harlem, compared to a recommended 1.5.
“NYCHA presents us with a real opportunity, because a lot of these resources are built in, but it is not always the most safe or inviting space, so we have to work on opening them up without alienating residents, which we also don’t want to do,” Ms. Leicht said.
An even bigger renaissance story is that of community gardens. The disinvestment and dereliction that came to East Harlem, like so many other corners of the city, led to burned out buildings and vacant lots across the neighborhood. Residents capitalized on all this new open space, creating one of the most vibrant networks of community gardens in the city. East Harlem boasts 39, which averages out to 2.7 gardens per 10,000 residents, nearly three times New Yorkers for Parks’ recommended amount.
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.”
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.”