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East Harlem youth sports groups struggle to reserve park space, report says

The majority of permits at some sports facilities go to non-East Harlem groups.

Thomas Jefferson Park is one of the larger

Thomas Jefferson Park is one of the larger parks in East Harlem. Photo Credit: Thomas Jefferson Park is one of the larger parks in East Harlem.

East Harlem boasts more recreational space than most Manhattan neighborhoods, but a majority of permits for those spaces do not go to local groups, according to a report on how to even the playing field for young athletes in the area.

About 44.4 percent of East Harlem is public parks and other recreational space, according to a report from The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit working with the Mount Sinai Health System and charitable groups to expand the quantity and quality of sport options for youth.

Despite East Harlem having the second highest green space-to-pavement ratio among Manhattan community districts, 80 percent of permits for the neighborhood’s athletic spaces during the 2017-18 winter season went to groups based elsewhere, the report found.

And 57 percent of track and field reservations at one of East Harlem’s largest recreational spaces, Thomas Jefferson Park, were taken by non-local leagues in November, the report found.

The city Department of Parks and Recreation did not have time to review the report’s methodology before press time, but said a year-round review of Thomas Jefferson Park shows more local representation — for instance, the East Harlem Little League has more time at the field in question than any other league.

“Ballfields are citywide amenities — that is, each ballfield is equally available to any New Yorker, regardless of zip code,” Parks spokesman Sam Biederman said in a statement.

In the case of the athletic hub on Randall’s Island, which is close to East Harlem, local groups accounted for just 4 percent of youth permits issued between March and November 2017, the report noted.

Ranya Bautista, the Harlem coordinator for The Aspen Institute’s sports promotion project, said East Harlem groups seem to be having a harder time navigating the bureaucracy involved in reserving athletic spaces.

“A lot of the larger programs that have the resources to go through it all, they run it like clockwork ... A lot of the permits you see the same names,” Bautista said. “East Harlem is unique among other places in Manhattan, specifically, where there are a lot of field spaces and a lot of open play spaces, but it’s not necessarily the community that’s accessing them.”

The analysis noted that the Randall’s Island Park Alliance has done outreach and offered assistance in East Harlem, and that the Partnership for Parks, a public-private partnership, can offer neighborhood groups help with the permitting process. The city also offers such assistance online and through borough permitting offices.

Still the institute suggested that the city begin prioritizing East Harlem groups when issuing permits for neighborhood fields.

The city did not immediately comment on this idea.

Given that a recent rezoning and investments tied to it are expected to change East Harlem, Bautista said it was an optimal time to tap into the area’s legacy of community organizing and ensure that all youth can access a healthy array of athletic options.

The Aspen Institute’s 44-page report detailing East Harlem children’s experiences and preferences — the top three sports youth want to try are skateboarding, fencing and ice hockey — can help start the conversation among stakeholders, Bautista said.

“There is so much potential in growing the opportunities for youth sport and recreation in the community,” Bautista said. “Right now is a critical point.”

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