Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski retiring after nearly 40 years with the agency

Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski is retiring after 40 years with the NYC Parks Department.
Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski is retiring after 40 years with the NYC Parks Department. Photo Credit: Freeform/Andrew Eccles

By the late 1970s, the fiscal crisis had left New York City’s parks scarred and battered — but not without hope.

Dorothy Lewandowski was a young parks staffer tasked in 1979 with re-energizing the department through a new program called Urban Park Rangers.

“[Former Parks Commissioner] Gordon Davis really had a vision to bring us in to make people feel good about their parks again,” said Lewandowski. “We were enthusiastic and idealistic college grads. It was a wonderful time.”

Lewandowski, who has served as Queens Parks Commissioner since 2004, is retiring after almost 40 years with the agency.

In that time she has overseen park projects and operations throughout the city, including the reconstruction of the Rockaway Boardwalk after it was destroyed by superstorm Sandy in 2012.

“Dottie is known for being a perfectionist and for her willingness to get her hands dirty,” Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver told amNewYork. “She’s been known to test out a sledding hill, jump on a skateboard or shoot some hoops at a ribbon cutting, and she’s even tested the waters at Rockaway Beach, where she spearheaded the opening of New York City’s first surfing-only beach … saying goodbye will be bittersweet.”

Mayor Ed Koch, center, with the first class of Urban Park Rangers in 1979, which included Lewandowski, bottom right.
Mayor Ed Koch, center, with the first class of Urban Park Rangers in 1979, which included Lewandowski, bottom right. Photo Credit: NYC Parks

Growing up in Queens, Lewandowski studied horticulture in college and ended up in the first class of park rangers along with Adrian Benepe, who would later become the city Parks Commissioner, and Kevin Jeffrey, a future Brooklyn Borough Commissioner.

“It was this whole eclectic group of people,” said Lewandowski, who turned 60 last year. “There were people who were history majors, geology majors. We were writing curriculum and researching parks.”

It wasn’t long before she put together a mounted division of urban park rangers and then became a supervisor.

One of Lewandowski’s biggest career breaks came in 1982 when she helped revitalize Crotona Park with a large federal grant. They used the funds for programming and much-needed physical improvements.

“The lake in Crotona Park was completely silted in, there was no water,” Lewandowski recalled. “We worked with the operations teams and a contractor and dredged everything in there. We put water back in, stocked it with fish and the wildlife started coming back.”

People in the community were thrilled. The results were so dramatic that during a flight out of the city for a vacation, Lewandowski overhead a fellow passenger refer to the swatch of green below as a “country club” unaware it was Crotona Park.

She also was able to tap into her horticulture background for a stint with the agency’s Natural Resources Group, had a chance to run the Urban Park Ranger program and oversaw beach and pool operations in the Bronx.

Lewandowski took advantage of a chance to work close to her Middle Village home in Queens after the birth of her son, David, in 1986. She worked as a park manager and then deputy chief of operations.

A big shift came in the mid-1990s, when the city took its “broken windows” strategy to parks. Instead of waiting for large capital investments, small repairs were made to keep benches and other basic equipment in shape.

Lewandowski eventually returned to the Bronx as operations chief and then commissioner before coming home to Queens in 2004.

“The parks in Queens are like my children, I can’t say which ones are my favorite,” she said. “We did some amazing things.”

She points to Elmhurst Park, the site of the former gas tanks that were an infamous traffic marker for decades in the borough.

The park includes a playground, fitness equipment and will soon house a memorial to Vietnam veterans. It also has a hill that Lewandowski herself tested out until it met her snow sledding seal of approval.

“It’s really hard to replace that kind of experience,” said City Councilman Barry Grodenchik of Queens, who chairs the Parks Committee. “She has really set a gold standard for what is possible in New York City parks.”

She and her husband, Walter, are avid kayakers. A passion project of hers was helping create the New York City Water Trail.

The couple are hoping to spend their retirement traveling, boating and spending time with David, who is now the chief resident of emergency medicine at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx.

“This is like a sabbatical, I’m taking a break to decompress and re-energize,” Lewandowski said. “I’m open to where the wind and the water take me.”