The chronically underfunded and understaffed New York City Parks Department cannot properly support its more than 1700 parks and recreational areas. This is simply the way it is.
Astoria Heights Park was neglected for decades.
Buckling concrete resulted in tripping hazards for little kids around the playground. With an insufficient number of trash cans and irregular park maintenance, overflowing trash was a consistent Park issue. Sparse and outdated play equipment was laid out on thick rubber mats that had long ago hardened to offer no cushion for falling children. After rain storms, severe drainage issues led to flooding and erosion. All of these issues resulted in a lack of neighborhood pride in the Park.
In 2013, I joined other concerned parents led by local Mom and friend, Lynn Kennedy, to form Friends of Astoria Heights Park. We agreed to the following strategic priorities:
(1) Build a strong and vigorous community around improving our park through regular volunteer opportunities and creative initiatives;
(2) Involve local businesses, nearby school principals and teachers, local and statewide elected officials, and Parks Department officials;
(3) Attract funding for a redesign of our park to address its structural problems, preserve and expand its green spaces, make it cleaner and safer, improve the equipment available to younger children, and offer more attractions to neighbors of all ages.
The logo concept I art directed for our group was “a tree with multi-colored leaves.” The intention was to blend the symbolism of durable and sustainable long-term growth with a celebratory allusion to the diversity of our neighborhood. I wanted a style that felt like a child’s drawing. Rallying around the Park to improve it for our children would be a recurring theme in our community building and advocacy.
The initial challenge before us was to convince people to take action on issues perceived as intractable, and to come together across cultural and ethnic divides.
To foster genuine, cross-cultural, interpersonal bonding, we began hosting pot luck lunches, and from the start we translated our event and meeting announcements into Arabic and Spanish whenever feasible.
A local artist approached our group with a brilliant community art idea — a vibrant flora and fauna mural to be painted in our Park by children of all ages from schools throughout our neighborhood.
She created a mock-up of her mural idea, and I used photography and compositing techniques to create a slideshow showcasing the potential aesthetic impact.
Instead of begging decision makers for budget allocations, our group gave them the more attractive option of approving our initiatives. The mural project was approved by the Parks Department, and all of our local politicians, including the Queens Borough President and our councilman, became enthusiastic supporters.
We won the support and involvement of local schools after making presentations to the principals. Volunteer students of all ages took turns executing their sections of the mural under the guidance of our volunteer mural artist and Parks Department staff.
The completion of the mural project was a turning point. Not only was it a public relations coup for our group, but the Park itself gained stature in our community.
Next, we ran an art contest among school-age children; winners were invited to paint their designs on our trash cans. The group had momentum and a growing reputation for creative and meaningful volunteer work.
Our community came together, acquaintances became friends, and regular activities and opportunities to beautify and celebrate our space were increasingly well attended. The neighborhood felt closer at the end than it had been at the start. People were proud of their volunteer work on behalf of the Park.
In 2017, Astoria Heights Park was one of fewer than a handful of public parks allocated funds (over $6 million) to revamp our Park’s drainage system and bathrooms, incorporate new equipment for the kids as well as a water sprinkler park, and to implement a design featuring well-defined spaces for different age groups to enjoy.
Our group ensured that all voices in the neighborhood had multiple opportunities to express their preferences and priorities directly to the architects responsible for designing the renovation. There were passionate disagreements, but dozens of neighbors were actively involved in this process. At our first meeting in 2013, about eight people attended.
In 2019, when Astoria Heights Park reopened, the whole community celebrated. This park was not on anyone’s radar when our project began. Now it’s safer, cleaner, greener, and more utilized than ever.
Friends of Astoria Heights Park is less active now, but continues to host activities and emphasize the role of the community in keeping our Park safe, beautiful, and inspiring.