Children of all ages lined up in the ballfield on Mapes Avenue and 180th Street, hitting their dusty baseball gloves against a wire fence. A young catcher behind the mound kneeled in anticipation of the first pitch. In the opposing team’s dugout, two-dozen adults, some wearing NYPD t-shirts, stretched sore shoulders and swung baseball bats towards the outfield.
It was East Tremont kids against local police on the long neglected Mapes Field in a friendly match that had been a long time coming in a neighborhood where gang violence has caused tension for years.
“Days like this show us how we can get back to what we used to be,” said Maria Vega, mother of two and a longtime resident of East Tremont, who was watching the September 24th game from the corner of Prospect Avenue with her dog in tow. Vega said she grew up a few streets away from the ballpark and would sneak out before dinner to get her brother before her parents noticed he hadn’t come home.
Mapes Field, once a vibrant hub in the East Tremont community, has been locked by the City Parks Department for at least two years. Organizations can apply for a special permit, but otherwise local residents are restricted from using one of the few fields available in their neighborhood.
Parks, playgrounds and ballfields in affluent areas are accessible and well maintained; in Manhattan, Central Park is patrolled by its own NYPD precinct and only one ballfield, located in Battery Park City, currently requires a permit for use. Those same properties are often ignored in underserved neighborhoods, and when ballfields fall into disrepair they are then deemed as unsafe by the Parks Department.
A recent survey by New Yorkers for Parks shows that 71 percent of Bronx residents feel parks aren’t adequately patrolled. Parks Department fields are supposed to be open for casual pick-up games year round. But Mapes has been added to a growing list of neglected green spaces in the Bronx.
The Parks Department could not provide an exact date when Mapes was first locked and suggested reaching out instead to the police department. The Parks Department community outreach team said fields are locked only in the event of repeated safety concerns in the area, but were unable to provide an exact metric by which that conclusion is reached. The special permits team said that a field is more likely to be locked if it’s in a dangerous neighborhood, but that fields are evaluated on a case by case basis.
“We’re doing the best we can and trying to figure out a better way to watch over the neighborhood,” said Irma Sanchez, an East Tremont resident. “But kids are being punished for crimes they didn’t commit.”
In 2015, 24 crimes were committed in Crotona Park, which is located just short of one mile away from Mapes. NYC Parks Advocates and the Park Enforcement Patrol, agencies dedicated to improving conditions of parks and policing within them, said that the increase in crime rate is being ignored by the city and that the parks need to be patrolled by more employees to counteract increasing crime levels.
“Violence in the park is a separate issue,” said Sanchez. “But it doesn’t make sense to lock kids out of a field that could be a safe area, just because it is next to an area where someone committed a crime.”
In the Bronx, it is not uncommon for repair projects in parks to be paid for by borough presidents and councilmembers. Earlier this year, additional patrol cars and surveillance cameras were installed in Crotona Park. Even with these efforts, made by a community that is already lacking in funding for these types of resources, Mapes remains closed and residents feel that the city has turned a blind eye to the field out of convenience.
“Something bad happens in the park and they lock up the field next to it, then you have a bunch of high school kids roaming the streets looking for something to do,” said Vega. “I don’t think anyone in our neighborhood understands why gang violence justifies keeping kids out of Mapes.”
On October 3rd, school kids ages 9 to 19 were invited to register for a cops and kids flag football league that will take place every Monday and Friday afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. To some, it seemed like the NYPD now controlled access to Mapes.
“I told my dad that there were cops at Mapes and he said a bad word,” said Ramon Inyez, a football team hopeful who is just one year too young to join the team. “But then we came to watch and my dad is excited that I can play next year.”
Another group of youngsters did a double take outside of the registration event and wondered what drew such a crowd. “Check it out, this is happening every week,” one child said to another before yanking his friends backpack in an attempt to be the first to the registry.
At a community board meeting, Timothy McCormack, deputy inspector of the NYPD’s 48th precinct, stressed the importance of police engagement with the community. “If we can show the kids with these events that cops are people they can actually trust, we can build on that relationship and better serve the neighborhood,” said McCormack.
Other officers mentioned that interacting with kids helps break through police being “the bad guys.” Teams are intentionally made up of a mix of students and police so as not to foster an “us vs. them” mentality.
“I just saw my grandson high-five a cop,” said Sanchez. I have seen it all!”
The initial softball standoff and subsequent football games reminded young players of the potential of the field. Older members of the crowd reminisced from packed dugouts, watching their children face off in some fierce, but friendly, competition.
One longtime neighborhood resident was moved by the rejuvenated camaraderie that made its way back to the ballfield. “I don’t believe there’s enough time in the world to tell you the things I’ve seen in this here area around Mapes,” said Raymond James, who has lived just blocks away from the ballfield for 60 years. “When they turned the lights on for the night games 30 years ago, the neighborhood made an evening out of watching. Everybody would go home right after, and it got so quiet that you could hear a cricket in the summertime. But it was a good kind of quiet, like everyone was finally just peacefully sleeping and not getting into trouble.”
Mapes was the place to be in East Tremont in its heyday. But even then, it wasn’t easy to turn the previously dusty patch of land into a proper hangout space. In the late 80s, Astin Jacobo, the neighborhood mayor and respected activist, rallied a group of residents to clean up in the field. Then Mayor Ed Koch eventually paid to install lamp posts and update the chain-link fencing. With the help of the Bronx borough president at the time, Fernando Ferrer, bleachers were installed and it wasn’t too long before bright lights were shining on the newly improved plot.
“That’s the thing about the lights. Back then, they turned a bad place into a good place,” said James.
But history has repeated itself and once again, grass has been replaced with dirt, and metal benches in the dugouts have rusted. The 1.8-acre lot is now another vacant space in a community where one-third of the residents are under 18. With 34 schools in East Tremont’s school district, there is need for safer after school spaces. The local community board, with the help of neighborhood residents, has spoken out about the need for additional areas for young people to play sports. In September, a proposal for a community center in Tremont Park was put on hold due to lack of funding.
“My family and I live right around the corner, and I worry about to my kids walking home from school,” said Dennis Hernandez, whose home faces Mapes Field. “It would make a huge difference if there was a working field or a place where kids could go to play ball.”
Despite its currently dilapidated state, it is during these events that Mapes again bears resemblance to the fixture of the community that it once was. Capitalizing on a few pleasant rivalries, NYPD is hosting a community wide cleanup party for the field on Friday, October 22nd. If the field is seen as a safer area by the Parks Department, it is more likely to be reopened.
“My son came home from the game and told me there’s a chance Mapes might open back up if we can keep it clean, and it made me realize that most of the kids out here don’t even realize just hanging out and playing catch could be an option for them,” said Hernandez.
The games have proven what the field could mean to a group of kids who, in the end, just want to play baseball. In an area where the number of available fields is dwindling and locations for after school activities are sparse, free reign over Mapes would have an impact. Despite East Tremont being left in a position to prove themselves worthy of their own property, it seems like a battle they’re willing to fight.
“With all of the things happening on streets around here, to see your kid that excited about something like a baseball game, I think that’s something every parent in the neighborhood wants,” said Hernandez.