Seward Park is not only one of the Lower East Side’s most heavily used public spaces, but as this country’s oldest municipal playground, it also has historical significance. Mayor de Blasio recognized this fact last spring when he used the park as a backdrop to announce Mitchell Silver would be his Parks Commissioner. But in recent months, neighborhood activists say, the park has suffered from neglect and is on a downward slide.
We recently got a detailed look at some of the maintenance issues with Amy Robinson and Linda Jones of the Friends of Seward Park. During our walk-through, it was obvious that weeds were crowding out plant beds, trash was strewn throughout the pathways, mosaic tiles and sculptures were chipped and mice and rats had overtaken an area along Essex Street (see the video below).
Robinson and Jones have complained about the situation, and they say, Parks Department staff agree more attention needs to be paid to Seward Park, but it never seems to happen. “We do not know the reason that this particular park is left in such disrepair,” Robinson said, “right now it’s dangerous, and sometimes it’s a little scary because of the rats and it’s dirty and unwelcoming.” Jones added, “you could have more supervision of the staff. They (park workers) don’t always know what they’re supposed to do.” In the past, they explained, there was at least a part-time gardener, but no more. Robinson said the park “is not a pleasant place to work because of the state that it is in… So there’s a lot of disillusionment when (Parks employees) get sent to Seward.”
In the last few weeks, Community Board 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer has been trying to help get the attention of the Parks Department. After a walk-through of her own, she observed, “I was appalled to see the conditions and the lack of maintenance there.”
The Friends of Seward Park and the local SPaCE block association have asked CB3 to make Seward Park a priority in its annual budget recommendations to the city. They want to see the installation of better trash cans, tree pruning, a plan to rid the park of rats and repairs to the degraded children’s fountain area. Long-term priorities, for the capital budget, include the restoration of the broken-down Schiff Fountain, renovating the park’s underutilized recreational building and landscaping the area in front of the Seward Park Library.
The Seward Park group is establishing a conservancy, which will have 501(c)(3) status and, therefore, be in position to accept tax deductible donations. “Our objective,” Jones said, “will be to raise some money to help take care of this park and to advocate for the park.” A family foundation has already pledged some money. “If the city funded its parks properly and this park were properly staffed,” Jones continued, “there would be no need for a conservancy whatsoever, or you could have a conservancy that did nice little extra things. But this park is not basically cared for so I think we’re going to have to do things like help get an exterminator, to get more staff for the park or buy garbage cans. We’ll have to do things that the city ought to be doing but isn’t doig and isn’t going to do.”
There are some signs of progress at Seward Park. This year City Council member Margaret Chin allocated $600,000 for the resurfacing of the basketball courts. Once again this summer, Friends of Seward Park organized volunteers for cleanup days and to care for the garden that’s just west of the library. But the organization believes a lot more can be done to care for a valued community asset. As Robinson put it, “our objective is to maintain and make the park enjoyable for all people of the Lower East Side. We think it’s a beautiful park and a special playground and our goal is to make it appealing for all ages.”
For more information about Friends of Seward Park, visit their website.