Friends of Astoria Heights Park
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Friends of Astoria Heights Park

The Problem

An annually 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 Sparse and outdated play equipment was laid out on thick rubber mats that had long ago hardened to offer no cushioning for falling children. All of these aforementioned issues resulted in a lack of neighborhood pride in the Park. After rain storms, severe drainage issues led to flooding and erosion.

 

the problem solvers

In 2013, I joined other concerned parents led by local Mom, 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.

 

BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER THROUGH BRANDING AND EVENTS


When you’re advocating for one of more than seventeen hundred parks, 

your complaints and requests will not sound more persuasive and urgent than those of others. 

Our group resolved early on to transform our Park through our own work.  

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 an approach that felt like a child’s drawing, to remind everyone about the most significant source of our motivation.  

Our logo would be used on a large canvas banner at all of our events, on our event announcement posters, on our email correspondence and our president’s business cards, on canvas bags distributed to volunteers, and on our website and social media.

Everyone agrees that a Park should be beautiful, clean, and safe. 

The initial challenge before us was to convince people to take action on issues perceived as intractable. 

To foster genuine, cross-cultural, interpersonal bonding of the sort that galvanizes a grass roots campaign, we began hosting pot luck lunches and translated our event and meeting announcements into Arabic and Spanish whenever feasible.

We publicized and hosted events throughout 2014. Everyone at the Park during events was actively invited to join us, bring food to the next event, tell their neighbors to come, join our Facebook group to receive notifications about fun activities for their children as well as volunteer opportunities. The transition to a friendlier community was underway.  

 

I spent time petitioning at the park, meeting hundreds of people, gathering signatures in support of our goals and listening to their feedback. Attendance at pot luck lunches grew, more volunteers showed up for flower planting and tree care events, and especially for events at which everyone cleaned and painted our space. I created and disseminated brochures to local businesses and to the offices of local politicians featuring my photography from these events. 

 

Most gratifyingly, the increased involvement of neighbors reflected the diversity of our neighborhood, and eventually included some of the elected officials whose advocacy would prove indispensable to our success. 

LEVERAGING ART TO ESTABLISH A VISION AND STRENGTHEN ALLIANCES

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 attending all of the schools in our neighborhood.

She created a mock-up of her mural idea, and I used photography and compositing techniques to create a slideshow to showcase this project’s potential aesthetic impact. While showing these slideshows to Parks Department officials and local politicians, without whose approval we would be unable to proceed, it became evident that our strategy was working. 

Instead of begging decision makers for budget allocations, we were giving them the considerably easier option of approving our own initiatives to make the Park more beautiful, which in turn would reflect positively on them. We were giving them low-cost, political capital. The powers that be quickly approved the mural.

Meetings with local school principals also won their support, and soon teams of volunteer students of all ages spent weeks executing their section of the mural. This became a public relations coup for our group, which saw a surge in new members as word spread.

Next, we ran a contest among school-age artists to develop designs for our trash cans. This feel-good effort attracted more attention and positive momentum for our group.

These art-based, community-building exercises elevated our group’s profile, publicized our goals, and established our neighborhood’s willingness to meet the city more than halfway to make Astoria Heights Park a gem.

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Over the course of four action-packed years of community-building and relentless advocacy, Friends of Astoria Heights Park prevailed in several ways. 

Our community truly 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 a handful of public parks allocated funds (over six million dollars) 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 designers responsible for re-envisioning our space. There were passionate disagreements, but I couldn’t help but notice that hundreds of my neighbors were actively involved in this process, which was thrilling as I recalled the first meeting of our group in 2013, which fewer than 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.