For over a century, Harlem residents have relied upon St. Nicholas Park as a central gathering place for joyous events like family celebrations, holiday tree lightings, Easter and Fall festivals, music events, film screenings, public art exhibitions, park volunteer days and more.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the park took on heightened importance as a refuge for individuals looking to gather safely with one another and find solace during hard times.
St. Nicholas Park is an essential natural resource for our community. However, the City of New York does not see its 2,000-plus parks and open spaces through this same lens—if we judge by the dollars it spends annually on them.
Our park is no exception. St. Nicholas is the victim of both a historic lack of city funding and the city’s broken capital appropriation process for building and repairing public infrastructure.
For years, Friends of St. Nicholas Park, a coalition of volunteer residents and community-based organizations of which I am a member, has worked to keep our beloved park clean and beautiful. But years without proper funding have left achieving even basic maintenance of the park unattainable, and a lack of reforms to the capital process are hampering our ability to address pressing construction and renovation needs.
A lack of funding impacts not only the basic maintenance of St. Nicholas Park but also the hiring and training of Parks Department staff who oversee our parks. Twenty years ago, all parks’ staff had specialized knowledge, but now community groups like ours increasingly have been forced to take on the fundamental responsibilities of the Parks Department.
We host bi-weekly volunteer trash cleanups from April to October and our volunteers helped restore five weed-infested garden beds over the last year through funding from Greenacre and other private sources. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic challenged our momentum at the same time parks usage skyrocketed and New York City cut the Parks’ budget by 14%, which led to the worst citywide parks conditions on record in 2020.
A walk through St. Nicholas Park today shows large sections of the park that are unmowed, and they will remain that way for much of the summer. Invasive weeds like Japanese knotweed and mugwort are everywhere, smothering plantings and lawns and obstructing sightlines. Every year that passes without proper maintenance only compounds the spread. Our volunteers can do a lot, but we cannot operate lawn mowers in city parks.
On the campaign trail, Mayor Eric Adams committed to 1% for Parks by signing onto New Yorkers for Parks’ Five Point Plan for Park Equity, and it appeared that hope was coming for St. Nicholas. But his preliminary budget fell well short of this commitment, allocating only .6%—which lags far behind other cities across the country that dedicate closer to 2% of their budgets to Parks funding.
Further compounding this issue is the city’s inability to efficiently spend the money it has for critical social infrastructure like parks and open spaces through its capital process. It takes far too long, and costs more than it should to build and make the repairs that our parks desperately need, resulting in nearly $6 billion in unmet capital needs alone. Reforms are long overdue to address the existing maintenance backlogs and streamline this process.
We have vital capital needs at St. Nicholas Park that haven’t been funded at all, including a playground that desperately needs renovation and lacks safe fencing, inadequate amounts of equipment storage on-site and a closed main staircase that has not been repaired for more than 10 years.
As we head into another warm summer and peak parks’ season, without 1% funding for Parks or capital process reform, our parks and open spaces will continue to fall into further disrepair. The funding gap is felt most acutely in communities like ours, which lack the extensive private funding that supports parks in wealthier areas of the city. These commitments by Mayor Adams and the City Council will ensure the basic needs and maintenance of St. Nicholas are met and allow our community’s vital resource to flourish.
We cannot let this crisis compound even further and must stop depending on the good will of community residents, local groups and outside funding for a solvable, policy-based problem that starts with our local government.
St. Nicholas Park and other parks across the five boroughs can become clean, accessible and safe places that all New Yorkers deserve if our city meets its obligation to fund them as the critical social infrastructure they are for our neighborhoods.
Karen Asner is a lawyer and member of Friends of St. Nicholas Park.