Park protectors: Learning from the past


BY Mark Costello

In the past few weeks, the “town” that is Lower Manhattan paused to celebrate the work and life of two disparate men. One was Albert Capsouto, Tribeca pioneer and nineteen-year veteran of Community Board 1, who passed away in January, at the shocking age of 53. The other was a legendary coach and league official, Edward Garcia of Community Board 3, who died nine weeks ago, 51-years-young. To my knowledge, the two were not acquainted. Yet, as often happens in community advocacy, these two shrewd men, from different sides of the same island, who never spoke and never met, were saying the same things.

Public space is critical – and fragile too. It is obvious that we all need parks and fields, bikeways and dog runs, skate parks and places to sit, or to read, to fish, or to just do nothing. But it is not enough to have a space we call a “park.” Community-based uses, offered at no charge or at low charge, must be protected too.

Protecting parks and park accessibility was how Edward Garcia got his start. In the 1980s on the Lower East Side, Edward, then a young man, banded together with friends to drive crack dealers out of the asphalt “parks” in his community. In the years since then, he built his Sol Lain Sports League into a beloved institution. He fought for upgrades to East River Park ($80 million worth have been undertaken in the last five years) and joined with many other groups to shepherd the conversion of an asphalt acre facing the East River at Corlears, to play-friendly, all-season turf. He was also a poetic soul. You should have seen him dance.

Albert Capsouto, was likewise a poetic, ruminative soul, soft of voice and often wry, but absolutely principled and passionate. For Albert, the push for parks began at his literal doorstep, one block from the Hudson at Washington and Watts. Throughout the post-9/11 age of upheaval and delay, Albert advocated in his patient, brilliant, urbane way, for the completion of so-called Segment III, the length of Hudson River waterfront, which has long defined Tribeca.

Albert was a champion—and frequent flyer—of bike lanes citywide, but especially the bike path along the Hudson through the park. He could often be seen on his English racing back, late at night, returning from a jazz club in the Village.

It is, for all these reasons, deeply right that the green oasis bounded by the busy streets of Canal, Varick, and Laight Streets, was formally re-christened on October 28 as Albert Capsouto Park. The renaming was achieved through an Albert-style, gentle-but-firm push by a Community Board 1 task force, led by Julie Menin, the board’s chair.

It is obvious that we all need parks.  But the challenges we face are perhaps without parallel. There is more to green space than sports fields surely, but the youth leagues do offer hard numbers by means of which to understand a larger trend. In the past ten years, as the population of Lower Manhattan has essentially doubled, the youth leagues – Downtown Soccer League, Downtown Little League – will come close to tripling in size. By the time Downtown is “built out,” in the blithe phrase of the planners, the community will hold about 100,000 residents. Downtown Little League, not so long ago among the smallest in Manhattan, will be among the largest, at 1300 kids. Other park uses and users will grow at least as quickly.

Less obvious, perhaps, than the sheer crushing shortage of diverse public space, are the many ways in which these spaces and associated uses can come under threat. Columbus Park in Chinatown, the only Vaux design Downtown, is filled on any evening with a colorful hubbub of cobblers and volleyball, of tai chi and pickup teenage soccer and touch football, fortune tellers, freelance bike and jewelry repairmen, games of chess and checkers, and perhaps the only sidewalk opera company around. The badly battered field in Columbus Park, heavily utilized by the park-starved Chinatown community for drop-in sports, was recently permitted on an exclusive basis not to any local group, but to a private business running soccer programs at a price that few in that community can likely afford.

Another nearby field, closed for half of fall weekends due to the lack of a janitor whose job consists of unlocking the gate, nonetheless gives extensive permit hours to for-profit sports providers, corporate softball and $400 per kid so-called “latchkey leagues” which have no parent oversight at all.

Both Edward and Albert understood that parks are human things. Parks have acreage, of course – but also character and personality. These qualities, as fragile as our friendships, must be protected, in order to endure when we are gone.