In 1934 a newspaper editor celebrated the opening of Sara Roosevelt Park as “the birth of a new Lower East Side.” Built to provide relief for those living in tenement housing, it was by far the largest park serving the diverse communities across the Lower East Side and Chinatown.
For decades, this park lived up to that promise.
But as the city deteriorated in the late 50’s to 70’s, the park spiraled into violence with drug and sex trafficking. Park centers closed until the neighborhood stood up to wrest it back.
Out of those ashes, along with traditional park spaces, arose the Hua Mei Bird Sanctuary, M’Finda Kalunga Garden, Golden Age Center, bocce court, turtle pond, chicken coop, and the unique ‘Pit’.
Today, the park remains an essential refuge of gardening, nature, chess and sports, playgrounds, shared resources, and celebrations honoring cultures in this stretch of the city.
This park should be a jewel.
Instead, abetted by familiar, diminishing funding for the Parks Department and decades of bottlenecks within its system, Sara Roosevelt is again reaching a tipping point with rising violence and misuse. This, despite unstinting efforts by the Park Manager, his workers, and decades of work by non-profit organizations and volunteers. Today it has one of the highest crime rates among any of the city’s 1,700 parks.
Sara Roosevelt’s struggles highlight a broader pattern of neglect across the city. Currently, a meager 0.6% of the budget is dedicated for Parks – the agency responsible for maintaining and managing 30,000+ acres: 14% of NYC!
Sara Roosevelt is in an “Environmental Justice Area,” according to New York City’s in-progress Environmental Justice for All Report. Yet due to underfunding, our park is not providing the community with what it needs. Our low-income senior center has waited seven years for fully-funded wheelchair-accessible doors. And instead of fixes, areas are fenced off, resulting in a derelict wasteland and a banished public, while fences are broken into and the drug trade goes on.
Only one of four former community buildings currently has public use. The remaining three serve all of Manhattan or NYC parks as a whole – at the expense of our community. One, promised to be returned to children it was built for, decades later is filled with Parks’ supplies. Parks’ cars and trucks sit throughout and inside our park.
All of this is symptomatic of piecemeal planning as needs for parks serving less wealthy communities are subordinated.
Study after study and our own practice has shown that the only way a park truly becomes safer is when the public uses it– as Jane Jacobs said, where there are “eyes on the street.” Anchors of positive use are needed, but they have been offered, requested and consistently stonewalled: small business’ kiosks staffed by high school teens, parkhouses as bustling multi-use hubs, accessible entryways, popular sites upgraded, water sources and other infrastructure, and an incentivized, job-secure park staff.
Mayor Adams and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams committed to ‘1% for Parks’ – we now need evidence we’re moving to that reality.
The necessity of greater funding is obvious, but also of equity-focused, comprehensive planning. This isn’t theoretical for me. I’ve been Coalition President through recent murders of a bike delivery dad, a young woman who lived across the park, homeless men here and nearby,and held the head of a dying teenager years ago. All but one was a person of color. There is no margin-of-error for failure in parks like this one.
As park stewards and proud members of the Play Fair coalition, led by New Yorkers for Parks with hundreds of organizations from different sectors, we believe in public funding for the public good. A functional Parks budget, a comprehensive equitable plan for the future and streamlined construction protocols to end disparities – all required to make decent parks across our city.
Our community does the work. We advocate for Parks’ budget and cheer for faster and more economical Parks Department construction. We garden and clean. We partner with police, Youth Explorers, government, non-profits and local high schools, and advocate to fund bathrooms, gardens, mosaics, playgrounds, resources for seniors, children, and homeless neighbors. We post park-wide against Anti-Asian violence, organize Juneteenth celebrations, ROAR, Sukkot, Moon Festival, community-supported agriculture, ladybug releases, bike repair, and It’s My Park and UN Sustainable Development Days.
But we cannot alone overcome the systemic failures that have maintained the status quo we know today. We need our policymakers to prioritize parks equity starting with investing and centering equity in a citywide plan. As we take meaningful action for our parks, we spur a greater belief in our city. We model a vibrant green future and benefit the physical and mental health and joy of communities on the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and across this city.
K Webster is President of the Sara Roosevelt Park Community Coalition.