Parks Department Promise to Gardeners: Well, we'll see...
Neighborhood Park Club Admits Impotence
It was an interesting meeting, the January 9th meeting of Community Board 1's Tribeca Committee. We learned lots of things about the neighborhood, some of which had been sort of apparent, but not so well defined. We learned more about our neighbors; we learned more about what is happening to community boards; we learned who runs what, and what can be expected as things go merrily forward.
It was an evening in which Change was dominant. Change is surely inevitable, but it is not inevitably good, as became clear in the course of this meeting. In this case, I am saddened to report, a neighborhood gasped its last.
The term, Tribeca, is a bit misleading. One chronicler reports that the name actually refers to a block along Lispenard Street, from Church to Broadway — the third leg of which is Canal Street. This dates to the days when Carl Weisbrod and others were giving residents in loft buildings a miserable time; Tribeca was the name of the block association formed by some of those residents. Another commentator notes that with Canal Street as one leg of the triangle, the Hudson River and the East River demark a sort of triangular shape Lower Manhattan.
What Real Estate salespeople call “Tribeca” is that part of lower Manhattan that was called by those of us who've been here awhile “Washington Market”. It starts somewhere just below Canal Street, ends somewhere short of Murray Street, and extends from West Street more or less to West Broadway — Church Street if one is feeling charitable.
What made the Washington Market district interesting was a neighborhood character. The residents were a mix of middle class folks with kids living in middle-income housing, artists and adventuresome sorts of other stripes living in converted hundred or hundred-fifty year old commercial buildings and a sprinkling of folks who could live anywhere and came here because it was just plain nice to be here. The neighborhood was active in a lot of different ways. A school opened here got splendid support — enough that it became a special school, eventually housed in a special building. The merchants here and around were special. We had small but interesting restaurants — most of them are gone now, and the few left from heyday are under siege by trendy places with high prices and mediocre wine lists (their menus are forgettable too). We had splendid housewares stores and hardware stores and just-plain-junk stores and one could get all sorts of interesting things at affordable middle class prices.
When did it change? My own watershed-moment is probably the realization that a whole lot of people from the Far West — motion picture people, television people, people from Arizona and California, Republicans... — started bidding up the price of living here. I have no idea why they came here, but they brought things with them that were to the Washington Market neighborhood what I am told rabbits have proven to be in Australia. The Tribeca Grill (or whatever it's called) is a case in point — noisy people with no panache eating food that might have been interesting in a smaller quieter place, but is now just chi-chi; it has replaced friendly neighborhood spots like Riverrun — simpler (and cheaper) with better beer.
Then there is the follow-along crowd — the thirty-somethings and forty-somethings-trying-desperately-to-stay-thirty-something, the kind of people who confuse life with that old TV sitcom, “Friends”. These people maxed out their credit cards, signed away their bonuses and bought the $2 millions to $4 millions converted loft in the old cold storage plant (or whatever...). They've spent their packet to move here, claiming that they can send their children to the wonderful school — which is now so over-enrolled the place has to have classes in the janitorial closet, and the overflow schools in the area are also packed to, well, overflowing. [One wonders what would have happened had these people stayed in New Jersey or Tuscon or wherever they were before, and spent that money on sending their children to really good country day schools. Certainly the kids would be healthier; lower Manhattan air quality is notoriously poor, especially in the area nearest the Holland Tunnel, where the priciest condos are.] This group is arrogant in the extreme; they live “on the Park Avenue of Tribeca” as one rather strangely dressed chap put it the evening of January 9th (someone should explain to people from out of town that a brown suit is very hard to wear in New York; it takes a great deal more panache and taste than most of these poor souls have). They are the very type of “arriviste”.
These are the folks who have litters, not children. One mommy admitted to running two strollers at once — a two-seater and a single-seater. These are the folks who have translated their barhopping, “Friends”-style dating routine into child-rearing patterns — featuring “play dates” (Heaven forfend the children should form their own friendships; Heaven forfend they should do what mommy and significant-other did on their dates...).
These are the folks — not a majority, I think, of old residents or new, but very noisy, even whiney — who insisted they needed a potty in the park, so the wee lambs (and apparently, their parents) wouldn't need to widdle in the bushes. The available facilities — about half a minute away up the stairs in the college adjacent to the park — was too far for their kiddies' defective potty training.
In short, the death knell of Washington Market, gauged by what may be the end of its neighborhood part, as it is metamorphosed into a kiddie-land, was rung by the rise of a New Class ruling the neighborhood. It is a class that saw what it liked, and in appropriating it, trashed it.
The despoliation of Washington Market Park is led by the Parks Department, in the person of their — well, not clear what his gig is: troubleshooter? Pacifier? Community Relations Flack? He shows up at every community event, listens patiently then explains that the Parks Department will do what it wants. He has been doing this for many years, throughout lower Manhattan. Chap name of Robert Redmond, with the title of Capital Projects Director for Manhattan. Lean, WASPy, usually in a Parks-logo golf shirt. [One wonders where he went to school. I know he wasn't at mine; perhaps it was one of those more popular day schools here in the city, the ones for the poor children whose parents cannot afford to send them away to school.] One has the distinct sense he is a Parks Dept. manager in the mold of Robert Moses (and Henry Stern and Adrian Benepe and...); he knows what's best for us, and for our neighborhood. More to the point, if an idea originates anywhere but in his office, it's simply not a good idea. The evidence for this is in his various other outings — the imposition of astroturf in Columbus Park, along with a design that has nothing to do with how people use the place. There is his decision to throw out seven years of community involvement in redesigning the Allen Street mall, in favor of some diddly design of his own.
Complicit in this despoliation of the only neighborhood space around is Nelle Fortenberry. This is a sufficiently uncommon name that I assume this is the same person whose major claim to fame is having worked for Michael J. Fox, who relocated to our part of the world after leaving his service in Los Angeles, and is now looking desperately for some sort of TV show to produce. A graduate of the UCLA film school, she is clever enough in a left-coast sort of way, but has sort of confused notions about her role in the neighborhood. The confusion is evident in the assumption that, having revived the moribund Friends of Washington Market Park with some of her fellow career-woman-cum-soccer-mom-wannabes (of both sexes...), that the resulting club was “the Washington Market Park board”. [This, of course, was not the case: The board was comprised of neighborhood-elected directors of the Washington Market Park Corp., which operated the park and had a seat on the Park Maintenance Corp. responsible for funding the park. That board went away when the corporation was dissolved and the park became Parks Dept. property. The successor organization died of neglect — apparently even failing to dissolve itself properly, which has led to Mrs. Fortenberry's organization having some difficulties establishing its 501(c)3 status.] Mrs. Fortenberry and her crew have worked closely with Redmond and his crew — in practice, meaning that the Parks Dept. has cooperated in the operation of some family events Mrs. Fortenberry's club has sponsored, and has been willing to explain to Mrs. Fortenberry's group at length the projects the Parks Dept. was undertaking.
In fact, the Parks Department has done a pretty poor job with Washington Market Park. Trees have been so ill-cared-for that one urban arborist, consulted privately by a neighbor, considers that most of the trees are diseased. Most trees are severely overgrown; when in leaf, much of the park is dark and foreboding. Such pruning as has been done has been done with no regard to the beauty of the trees. Clean-up is haphazard, and on occasion, staff assigned to the park have left early, without regard to closing the park at the proper time. Recent “repairs” to the automatic irrigation system placed two concrete boxes, and the elimination of public-use gardener accessible water taps. Briefly: The park is clearly a step-child, both for the local supervisor (who hangs over in Battery Park City, along that esplanade) and Parks Dept. manager Redmond — whose every second line is about some aspect of the park that is not designed the way his team would have done it.
So, the Redmond & Fortenberry team brought their plan for Redmond's new park jakes to the Community Board. It got a nice hearing — mainly because no one knew about it coming up. Surprise is a useful political tactic, and who want. It then hit the obstacle of the one completely adult group with a definable stake in the park — the community gardeners. They love their plots and they love their gardening and they have managed to keep the mommy-and-nanny brigade at bay. Larry Wasser, who leads this group, and is the only Friends of Washington Market Park member with a well-defined constituency, moved to question this whole business. What had seemed a shoe-in was all of a sudden faced with a line drawn in the sand. The issue came back to the Community Board for a vote — and was sent back to committee! Carol DeSaram — long time leader in the community — led that first Tribeca Committee meeting; she could not get a resolution passed. Her committee members (mostly long term residents) didn't want the potty-as-planned. Absent a positive vote, DeSaram postponed a decision — and didn't come to that next meeting. Her co-chair, more in tune with Fortenberry crew, rammed the motion through by refusing to hear argumentation of any kind.
Even so, there were some revelations:
Mrs. Fortenberry finally admitted she and her crew are not “the park board” and that they have no say in what goes on in the park, that any connection they have is subject to the Parks Dept.'s good graces.
The co-chair, having rammed things through, pretty much, called for a stipulation from the Parks Dept. that the garden area would be restored to use and without diminished status. To this Parks Dept. manager Redmond responded, “Well, we'll see.” That non-committal response was sufficient for the political needs of this WOG (“the WOGs begin at, er, the Battery”...), and he forced the carrying of a resolution to approve of what the Parks Dept. was gonna do anyway.
So finally, the Parks Dept. can claim it has community approval for doing what it wants to do. Effectively, a small group of mommies and new-residents have gotten a plan passed that will close a third of the park for a year, will reduce the one adult-oriented park area by 25 percent, will restrict access the whole of the park while dismantling the only generally accessible entrance, and will conclusively and finally change the neighborhood in yet new and unpredictable ways.
Aerial image of Washington Market Park. Red shading: Area to be given over to new toilet. Includes three trees, about 20%-25% of present public-use garden plot area. Blue shading: Area to be closed for at least one year and to be substantially destroyed; includes park entrance, landscaped juniper hill and the rest of the public gardening area. Yellow shading: Proposed temporary entrance where BMCC entry ramp is at grade with the park's southwest corner.
[Note: This picture shows the park with the trees in leaf, revealing some of the scope of Parks Dept. neglect. All these trees, especially along the right side and bottom-central parts of the image are severely overgrown, according to one independent urban arborist. As one resident and long-time park user, the result is a part that is very dark even to the point of being sinister.]
The main objections to the whole potty business has always rested on the site the Parks Nazis have chosen, with agreement from their “yes men” in the Friends of Washington Market Park. The area at the western end of the park, shaded red, is the area that will be taken up for this new jakes. We can reliably plot this area based on the predicted loss of trees and garden plots; when mapped out, the loss is about 25 percent of the area now given over to public-use gardening. Interestingly, this is presented as also using some of the space behind the stairs going from the park to Borough of Manhattan Community College; the evidence presented by the Parks Dept.'s staff led by Redmond makes clear that this area will remain more or less intact, and that the new jakes building will be sited so as to screen that area, but afford access to it for both its legitimate and less-than-legitimate uses.
The new john needs water and sewer (and one assumes, electric) connections. The area shaded in blue shows what will be destroyed in order that the Parks Dept.'s contractors can bring in a back-hoe. Starting at the main entrance (which will be closed for the duration — at least a year, according to Redmond) a swath at least half the width of the public-use garden area will be closed off and dug up. This will mean that the landscaped entrance, long since allowed to decay under Parks Dept. mismanagment, will be ripped out. Most of the garden plots will be ripped out. The only safe seating area for older park users will be ripped out. The area where birds and squirrels gather will be ripped out. The trees shading the northern side of the park — these are not Parks Dept. trees, but belong to Independence Plaza — will have their root systems compromised and probably ripped out. In short, areas important to the park as a neighborhood amenity, serving all of us, will be destroyed, along with private property not even under Parks Dept. control, will be destroyed to bolster the egoism of the Parks Dept. Manhattan Capital Projects team and their collective master, Adrian Benepe, and to preserve the legacy of Robert Moses for meddling in things not understood.
Since the only grade-level entrance to the park must be torn down to accommodate the year-long construction and new landscaping plan and so on, the Parks Dept. needs to find a new entryway. Washington Market Park's north side butts up against the garden fronting Independence Plaza. The ramped entrance to Borough of Manhattan Community College forms the wall of the park's west side. The long stretch of park along Greenwich Street is at street grade — but the Current Parks Dept. Doctrine makes this sacrosanct — it is where former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern spent a million dollars of maintenance endowment on a new kiddie-playground area. Most of the park's southern line, along Chambers Street, is several feet above grade. The only spot where the park comes close to level with public access is right at the beginning of BMCC's ramp — shaded yellow on the aerial view. Redmond thinks the college should let him cut a temporary entrance from its ramp to his park.
I will be most surprised if the college does this. That part of the ramp made narrow by the signing tower island; it's barely six feet wide at that point — if that. It is also the most heavily used part of the entrance ramp, as students come up to the college from the various Chambers Street subway and bus stops. To create a park entry there, designed to accommodate SUV-size multiple-child strollers and nannies pushing them — the heavy traffic that normally enters the park from Greenwich Street — would nearly double the traffic at that relatively narrow point. The congestion would be significant — I believe it would be significantly greater than the trivial impact of increased student use of the main park entrance when the college was rebuilding the ramp (among other things, the college minimized its impact by encouraging the use of other access points; the park would not offer that option). Neither are the security implications, for college and park, trivial. In short, Redmond's current best-guess alternate-entrance idea should be a non-starter, unless a whole lot of people are not paying attention.
My friend & neighbor Bob Gluckstadt notes the following:
The bathroom at St John's Park located on Leroy Street was demolished by the Parks Department. Reason: migratory sexual predators.
The bathroom at the Jefferson Market Library has been sealed shut. Reason: migratory sexual predators.
The bathroom at Washington Square Park and all three bathrooms of the Hudson River park Trust have problems with migratory sexual predators.
Police at City Hall Park refer bathroom seekers to the New Amsterdam Branch Library. A homeless colony presently exists on Murray Street under a sidewalk shed to use the facilities at the New Amsterdam Branch Library.
In short, the recent history of public toilets is pretty poor.
Can we expect better for the new jakes at Washington Market Park? A couple things suggest not. Washington Market Park's manager is not really much in evidence; his main responsibility is the long stretch along the Hudson River in Battery Park City. Washington Market Park is sort of an ugly stepsister in this Parks Dept. management schema. Onsite staff is adequate for day-to-day chores, perhaps, but has (as noted above) taken off at its convenience, without properly securing the park. Park maintenance is at best haphazard; the overgrown condition of the trees, the ad lib pruning of branches without regard to shape or beauty, the decaying condition of the little wrought-iron folly at the park's southern side, the poor conditions of lawn and other general-use areas, the poor supervision of reconstruction after the new irrigation system was installed (already showing signs of failure, by the bye) — all this suggests the Parks Dept. will not be all that clever in dealing with the added strain on the already strained-to-breaking Parks Dept. management of Washington Market Park.
So why is this being done? We finally know the answer: Nelle Fortenberry (and others of her ilk) perceive this as a legacy. Mrs. Fortenberry actually said this at the meeting of the CB1/Tribeca Committee when the resolution was being considered: Vote for this, said she; you will create a legacy for years, even decades to come.
Ah. An “ædifice complex”. How very Left Coast. Let's build a theatre and stick some singers/dancers/musicians in it; we will have opera/ballet/symphony forever. A very Angeleno view of things. Not realistic, of course, but that is the land of fantasy.
The reality of this legacy may prove otherwise. One wonders if the first to prove the legacy may be the very children of Mrs. Fortenberry and Mrs. Menin and so many others of that ilk; will they be the first to experience predation?
Will Redmond restore the gardens? “We'll see.”
Will the reconstructed entrance to the park have the charm of the entrance before Parks Dept. neglect and now, demolition. “We'll see.”
Will the park remain an amenity for all, or continue to become more and more the preserve of an arriviste few? “We'll see.”
Will this be the last stroke, whereby the philistines — the failed artists become real estate brokers, the financial gin-&-jag set, the motion picture and TV crowd, the folks with the supersize mortgages and litters of children — finally do to death the very thing they hoped to gain in moving to this neighborhood? Most likely.