Tag Archive | "City Parks"

Cancer diagnosis threatens future of Bronx bird sanctuary

Troy Lancaster, 69, inspects some weeds that have taken over a gravel path that runs through Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary in Mount Eden.

As Troy Lancaster opened a gate to the Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary in Mount Eden, he bent down to pick at some weeds that had begun taking over the gravel path that cuts through this oasis in the south Bronx. Though it feels like a lifetime ago, he said, the city-owned lot used to be a dumping ground for junk and snow from the rest of the city—and he’s worried it’s headed there again.

Lancaster, the man who built Dred Scott from the ground up 22 years ago and has spent much of his time since then acting as director and caretaker for the park, was diagnosed with leukemia last year and began treatment in early September. With nobody to immediately take over those duties, the park is just beginning to fall into disrepair and ultimately faces an uncertain future.

“I don’t see anyone doing what I did for this many years,” Lancaster, 69, said. “And I’m too sick to fight it.”

Though it’s designated as part of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the vast majority of the money for general upkeep is raised painstakingly by Lancaster and his wife, Patricia Grant. They also perform much of the landscaping and other manual labor themselves, originally learning the basics by taking classes at the Bronx Botanical Gardens.

Without the promise of financial security for whoever comes next, it’s been difficult to find someone with the expertise—and willingness—to take over. The Parks Department said it plans to hold information sessions this fall in an attempt to recruit a new caretaker, but Lancaster is anything but optimistic.

He’s quick to point out that years of unpaid labor inspired the park’s name: Dred Scott was a slave who tried, unsuccessfully, to sue his owner for freedom in what would become a landmark Supreme Court case. It began as a joke Lancaster’s daughter told, but the name eventually stuck.

“This is a modern-day slave story,” Lancaster said. “I started the bird sanctuary in the first place because I felt my government failed me … We were just trying to make a decent space for kids that live in the community.”

Looking at Grant Avenue now, it’s hard to imagine the way it was back when Lancaster first moved to the neighborhood in the 1980s. There were still apartment fires burning every few days or so, he said, and only one or two buildings we would now consider livable. Most of the block Lancaster lives on was an open-air drug market.

Starting in the 1990s, it took more than two years to clear the lot of debris and create what would soon become a community garden. After learning songbird migration routes lay directly over The Bronx, Lancaster set out planting native plant species that would attract the birds. His wife then designed a curriculum for after-school nature programs that would serve neighborhood children, but it was hard to elicit the same sort of buy-in from the community at large.

“People were never going to go for a bird sanctuary in the Bronx,” Grant said. “They would say, ’What kind of crackpots are up there on Grant Avenue talking about a bird sanctuary?’ … They just didn’t get it.”

Once the vacant lot—and the neighborhood at large—was cleaned up, everyone assumed developers and their bulldozers wouldn’t be far behind. That was the story behind numerous other community gardens and similar plots across the city, a phenomenon outlined in a 2002 paper published by the social science journal GeoJournal.

Except that didn’t happen. The Lancasters won a $500,000 grant from Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, then an EPA Environmental Champion Award, and the park that nobody seemed to want suddenly became a cornerstone of the community.

“In the end we made a lot of people happy with that space,” Lancaster said. “A lot of people got to do family reunions who had never had one before, people had weddings done there—people who couldn’t afford to have a wedding at the botanical gardens.”

Last August while Lancaster was working in the park, he began to feel dizzy and passed out. Grant found her husband a short time later and rushed him to the hospital, but bad news was already on the way.

After the cancer diagnosis, Lancaster began reflecting on his life’s work. He still plans to put in as much time as possible during treatment to ensure the park’s continued success, but is slowly coming to terms with the future—with or without the sound of songbirds brightening up his little corner of New York City.

It was the people, after all, who made Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary a success—and not the other way around.

“We didn’t create that community,” Lancaster said. “The space and the people did. Even when we didn’t have the tools to properly take care of this place, the neighborhood used it for what they felt they could use it for.”

“We just opened the gate, and they came in.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Community Resources, Featured, Southern BronxComments (0)

A revitalized Bronx park shows off at “It’s My Park Day”

A park erected on an old landfill in the Soundview section of the Bronx attracted diverse volunteers to revitalize its garden during the event “It’s My Park Day” on Sunday.

Volunteers worked from late morning to early afternoon planting daffodils to attract butterflies and clearing out tall, dense shrubbery to reveal a view of the Bronx River from the Butterfly/Meditation Garden at Soundview Park. The Friends of Soundview Park, supported by Partnership for Parks, coordinated the event.

Volunteers help plant daffodils in the Butterfly Meditation Garden

Volunteers help plant daffodils in the Butterfly Meditation Garden (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

The lush, maintained green space that volunteers visited on Sunday was recently reborn after a neglected past.

“It was a dump” with a “dangerous reputation,” said Lucy Aponte, a longtime Bronx resident and current president of the Friends group. Aponte was speaking literally as well as figuratively. The park operated as a landfill from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Soundview Park’s trashy history is to be thanked for the far-reaching views it now offers; its landfill days raised the shoreline 30 feet above the marsh elevation. Its potential as a thriving waterfront park came to fruition in 2010 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Parks Foundation’s Catalyst Program, which aims to renovate parks in underserved areas.

With the imminent departure of Catalyst workers at the end of the year, the park’s management will be turned over to Friends of Soundview Park, a local volunteer group. Although the park has come a long way during the four years of Catalyst attention, the Friends group inherits some tough challenges.

A vital task for the Friends group is to increase visitors to the park. From the beginning, Catalyst’s Park Coordinator for Waterfront Activity, Carlos Martinez, had difficulty building interest in the park among nearby residents.

Events, like “It’s My Park Day,” have the double advantage of revitalizing the park and drawing visitors.

Volunteers add mulch to a street tree right outside the garden (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

Volunteers add mulch to a street tree right outside the garden (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

Luz Quezada, 48, a former Bronx resident now residing in Manhattan, found out about Soundview Park’s event through the nonprofit Fiadasec Federacion Internacional, a community–minded organization based in the Dominican Republic with a branch in New York City.

A first–time visitor to Soundview Park, Quezada said she thought the event was an “awesome way to create conversation about environmental issues with children.” She brought her seventh grade daughter Raymi to help plant daffodil bulbs.

Quezeda said she “never knew this park existed” and was “very amazed” by the park’s beauty. She said she and her family would be back soon to revisit the waterfront greenway.

Four years ago, Community Board 9 expressed concernes about the Catalyst Program’s goal of activating the space and bringing more people to such a large park, skeptical that Soundview Park could change its reputation as a dangerous area, Martinez recalled.

Today, with a new chairman in charge, the community board still has not thoroughly embraced the project. Chairman William Rivera “hasn’t talked to the friends group” yet, he said, and he expressed concerns over noise levels caused by sports leagues and barbeque parties in the park. Rivera said he is open to addressing his qualms with the Friends and hopes to establish a connection soon.

The two newest members of the Friends group are working hard to engage the community in the park’s activities by shooting a video.

Brothers Mohamed Kaba, 18, and Mamadou Kaba, 16, hope their video, which includes interviews with park attendees and shots of the park’s views, will “get people to want to donate and help,” Mamadou said.

Mohamed took classes at his high school on videography and will post the finished version on the NYC Park’s website page and Facebook page. The brothers’ plan to include old photographs so that viewers can see how drastically the park has changed.

The Kaba brothers interviewed Wanda Diaz, 23, who found out about Soundview Park’s “It’s My Park Day,” from a flier during a class trip to Poe Park in the Bronx. She said she enjoyed the event and would take part in further activities.

The Kaba brothers interview Wanda Diaz about her experience at "It's My Park Day" (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

The Kaba brothers interview Wanda Diaz about her experience at “It’s My Park Day” (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

To help fund the activities the park hosts, the Friends will take a page out of the Catalyst program’s book and reach out to the Bronx River Alliance, which provides contacts with corporations.

Last month’s “International Coastal Clean-up” at the park was sponsored by the outdoor retailer R.E.I. and “It’s My Park Day” was sponsored by TD Bank. The corporations not only provide money for tools and supplies, but also give out T-shirts and reusable bags.

Jaime Feliberty, 59, the Friends member in charge of “It’s My Park Day,” said Carlos Martinez, the Catalyst worker, taught their group how to organize themselves to be efficient. He “feels terrible” about Martinez’s departure, and joked that he is “going to tie him up so he doesn’t leave.”

Even though Feliberty said there is still much to learn about taking charge of the park’s activities, he noted that the Friends group has a good team of people, including artists Laura Alvarez and Lucy Aponte.

Martinez said that the Friends group would continue to receive advisory support from a Partnership for Parks Borough Coordinator. He also said that he would be available for Friends members to contact for help, even as he heads to the next “Catalyst Park,” Thomas Jefferson Park in East Harlem.

The launch into Soundview Park’s future was secured by the Catalyst Program. The park is now poised to enter a new era. The park itself is thriving, with an improved “greenway,” a path that hugs the shoreline and connects waterfront towns, and with coming attractions like an amphitheater, which will provide a venue for local performers, an extensive wetlands area, which will allow the native ecology to flourish, and a dog park.

In addition to managing events and recruiting members, the Friends of Soundview Park must widen their outreach to promote their park’s new track, playgrounds, greenways, and gardens. Transforming from a desolate dump to a picturesque park, Soundview Park is poised for an influx of visitors.

A couple sits by the Bronx River, which runs adjacent to the park's "greenway" (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

A couple sits by the Bronx River, which runs adjacent to the park’s “greenway” (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

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