Dozens of neighborhood residents rallied last Saturday morning at Riverbank State Park to speak out against proposed cuts that the state wants to implement in the upcoming budget. If passed, the park, which sits in West Harlem, will reduce operation hours, which would eliminate activities including those for seniors and youth.
The Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) announced last month that 57 state parks and historic sites will feel the pinch of the 2010-11 budget. Several parks are slated for closure, while others could see service reductions.
In a statement from Gov. David Paterson’s office, the governor said that the closing and service reduction of state parks is unfortunate in order to close the $8.2 billion deficit.
“In an environment when we have to cut funding to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and social services, no area of state spending, including parks and historic sites, could be exempt from reductions,” said Paterson. “We cannot mortgage our state’s financial future through further gimmicks or avoidance behavior. Spending cuts, however difficult, are needed in order to put New York on the road to fiscal recovery.”
OPRHP Commissioner Carol Ash said, “These actions were not recommended lightly, but they are necessary to address our state’s extraordinary fiscal difficulties.”
Riverbank State Park is the third most visited park in the state after Niagara Falls and Jones Beach, and sees over 1 million visitors a year. Currently, the 28-acre park is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., but if the state has its way, the park would be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The recently formed organization New Yorkers to Save Riverbank is trying to keep the park from slimming down on hours. The change in hours could eliminate various programs used by neighborhood children and seniors, including sports teams, jogging, ball playing, hockey, swimming and quilt making.
“If they follow through with this, it would have a devastating effect on the children,” said Elizabeth Brett of New Yorkers to Save Riverbank. “It not just a park. It’s a community. It’s a great opportunity for people of all communities in New York to get together.”
Riverbank currently has 78 senior activities, 148 aquatic, athletic and cultural classes for people of all ages, summer camps and seasonal work for community residents, all of which could be eliminated if $5 million is not granted by the Environmental Protection Fund.
“The weather is getting warmer and all of the outdoor summer concerts will not happen. We’re not just talking about classes, but all of the cultural programs that bring New Yorkers together will not happen,” Brett said.
Completed in 1993, the North River Water Pollution Control Plant was built where the park sits despite strong protest from residents. As an agreement to allow the sewage plant to stay, Riverbank State Park was built over the sewage plant.
Residents say even though the park provides a wealth of Olympic-type activities, the odor from the plant is still bothersome.
Last Saturday, people ranging from ages of children, young adults and seniors voiced their outrage over the possible hour reduction of the park that they say is a debt to the neighborhood. A petition was available for signing to keep the park open. Elected officials who also use the park came to the rally to weigh in on the issue.
“I come four or five days a week to this park,” said Jacqueline Iszard, who is retired. “I do water aerobics and I also go to the art classes. I would be devastated. I’ve been coming here since the park opened. A lot of seniors come here and it’s good for them to come out here and socialize. This is a part of my routine.”
Mani Gilyard is also retired and uses the park’s fitness room and swimming pool. He tries to go to the park five days a week in the morning and has been going for the past five years.
“It’s a necessity as you age to be in good health,” he said. “Rather than dealing with sickness, I can deal with wellness. I’d have to fight them for my money because I pay on an annual basis for the fitness room. They are destroying the park. If the park is paying for itself, why is it being cut?”
Jane McInnery’s son is a part of the Riverbank State Park Rangers hockey team. The program currently has 250 members with children from across western Manhattan. She said that the reduction in hours would have an impact on youth.
Practices for many of the sports teams occur during early morning hours that the state is trying to reduce.
“It brings the kids together across all social groups,” she said. “This has grown to be one of the premier organizations and it’s affordable. There is no other option except Chelsea Piers, which is very expensive.”
Several elected officials are trying to use their positions to keep the park’s regular hours, including State Sen. Eric Schniederman, Assemblyman Keith Wright and City Councilman Robert Jackson. The three pledged to work to prevent the cut of the programs.
“We have to push this,” said Jackson. “I use this park myself and all these things are about a community coming together. The state budget is not done until it’s over. People have to come together to keep Riverbank open.”