Park Life: The East Side’s Landless Gentry Fight for Every Scrap of Open Space

Think of the perfect Saturday on the East Side. Brunch with your friends and the kids at, say, Fig &

A land swap to make Robert Moses proud. (Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)

Think of the perfect Saturday on the East Side. Brunch with your friends and the kids at, say, Fig & Olive, Artisinal or—the mayor’s favorite—Viand. Maybe a stroll along Madison for a little shopping and errands, and then off to Central Park to let the little ones wear themselves out before a nap. Or maybe it’s the other way around, soccer and softball in the park, a little tennis with friends or just some sunning on one of the lawns, then a late lunch.

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Living East of Eden sure can be nice, but just like Adam and Eve, it always seems like there is more outside the garden gates.

Not satisfied with their proximity to one of the loveliest parks in the world, East Siders have been lobbying for decades for more leisure land, particularly along the river. They look jealously on at their West Side brethren, with Riveside Park and Hudson River Park—and even the green shoots along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront. Thanks to rampant development, from Robert Moses’ FDR Drive up through the Bloomberg Building on 59th and Lexington, the East Side has grown more crowded every day, and yet access to the water, a mere mile away, has been all but impossible.

Last week, the mayor reached what he called “a historic agreement” with the United Nations that would finally realize every East Sider’s dream of waterfront open space. Beyond that, it ensures the U.N.’s continued presence in New York (a mixed blessing, unless you are a fan of motorcades). In exchange for half of the adjacent Robert Moses Playground—a span of hardtop beloved by roller hockey players—and two office towers, the city will receive $73 million upfront and up to an additional $150 million over time. This will upgrade existing parks as well as the funds to complete a 1.2-mile section of the riverfront greenway. The plan is not only a boon for East Siders, then, but all Manhattanites, as it will close the last gap in the 32-mile “emerald necklace” encircling the island.

“It’s hugely important because despite these difficult fiscal times, we’ve found a way to fund this very expensive and difficult piece of the greenway,” Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, one of the engineers of the deal, told The Observer. “There’s always a reluctance to move forward, especially if it means the demapping of a park, but this is critically important to the neighborhood and the city.

That’s swell! Sure it is. It’s just, well… “The esplanade is a desperately needed feature, but you should not mistake that for a real park,” said Geoffrey Croft, director of NYC Parks Advocates and an East Side resident.

See the parks—or lack thereof—on the East Side >>

There is some truth beyond pure parochialism that the East Side has been given short shrift. They may have Lavo and Barneys, but they also fall last in New Yorker’s for Parks’ rankings. “Believe it or not, the neighborhood has much less park space than most of the city,” local councilman Dan Garodnick told The Observer. “My district ranks 51st out of 51 neighborhoods.” Falling just after Midtown East is the tony quarters of the Upper East Side, 46 out of 51.

This count is on a per capita basis, and it does not include Central Park, but the fact remains, more than 300,000 New Yorkers are confined to 65 acres of open space in East Midtown and the Upper East Side. (The Park Avenue median does not count.) “It’s true, the Upper East Side is wider, so all those hundreds of thousands of people living between First and York, Second and York, they have a long way to go to get to Central Park,” said Alyson Beha, director of research, planning and policy at New Yorkers for Parks.

While locals welcome the new greenway, they look around at the waterfront parks that have washed up across the five boroughs in the past decade and cannot help but feel a little contempt blossoming.

“There is a huge disparity between what the East Side is getting and what the West Side has had for a long time,” Mr. Croft said. “They’ve got multiple recreational spaces not only with ball fields but skate parks and even merry-go-rounds.” Mr. Croft stressed that he is thankful for what the city is providing, and it is indeed a huge benefit for the entire city, the completion of a circum-polar esplanade, but while everyone else gets generous parks, he and his neighbors are left with little more than a glorified boardwalk.

Park Life: The East Side’s Landless Gentry Fight for Every Scrap of Open Space