It’s My Park Day” — you’ve probably seen some promotions of this annual event sponsored by New York City Parks and Recreation. This year, it will occur on Saturday, May 15. Since I didn’t grow up here, owning a city park is a new concept for me.
On the East Side of Cleveland, Ohio in the 1960s, the neighborhood kids played in yards. No stickball in the streets where I grew up, and I don’t recall ever visiting any city parks. There were stay-at-home moms and large yards with fences big enough to enclose a wiffle ball game. We were also lucky to have a huge apple tree on our property. So it was the kids’ clubhouse, and you could perch on a limb and read a book in the cool shade in July. But when it came to August, and Dad’s vacation, we packed up the camper and headed for — you guessed it — the state and national parks.
Gettysburg, Kitty Hawk, Skyline Drive, Appomattox Courthouse — you name it, we camped and we toured it. A love of history and nature was indelibly etched on my character by that experience. The rivers and oceans, the battlefields and cemeteries, the museums and homes of the presidents, the birds and the flowers, all the cultural and natural resources passed on to us by previous generations that we are privileged to care for here in the United States.
Park rangers were a part of those parks. Many children grew up wanting to wear that uniform and that famous hat. To ride one of those horses. To guide the tours.
Our world today is different. If you’ve been to a program conducted on city, state or federal parkland on the rim of Jamaica Bay recently, more likely than not, it wasn’t led by a “professional” ranger.
Have you attended free kayaking classes at Canarsie Pier? There’s a park ranger employed by the U.S. Department of the Interior who says hello and supervises, but the instruction is by volunteers from the Sebago Canoe Club. The same corps of trainers has enabled New York City Parks to offer kayak training in city pools during the colder months of the past two years. Through its membership dues, fundraising, and volunteer efforts, Sebago has cared for the waterfront here in the city for 50 years, and its upstate lakefront camp dates to 1933.
Or maybe you prefer the nature walks in Gateway National Recreation Area. Some are led by rangers with biology degrees, earnest but inexperienced souls sometimes carrying cards with the names of the plants and birds. But the best walks are led by local not-for-profit groups, such as the American Littoral Society, the Brooklyn Birding Club, and another that has recently been organized as the “Friends of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.”
Looking to take weekend visitors to a play or an art gallery? Again, you will be entertained and culturally nourished by volunteers from the Rockaway Theatre Company and the Rockaway Artists Alliance. In some cases, these volunteers are fortunate to have “day jobs,” but others struggle on, passionately creating their art, hoping that they will sell an occasional painting or sculpture to pay the bills, or hit it big in an audition for a paying role.
If your child plays baseball or softball in Rockaway, the fields, bleachers, restrooms and snack bar essential for that experience were built on local parkland by a group of volunteer coaches, relying on your annual membership fees and other fundraising to jump start their efforts. On April 17, Marty Andresen and the Rockaway Little League kicked off their 56th season with an event for league participants and their families that could give Coney Island a run for its money — complete with childrens’ games and bounce houses, barbeque grills and a marching band! Though my teens graduated from the league several years ago, I attended just to marvel at how successful the endeavor has become.
Within the parks in the Jamaica Bay community, whether you are looking to learn about nature or history, or master a new sport or hobby, the volunteers are there to fill the need. With support of foundations, elected officials and other generous benefactors, some of the groups are able to compensate the most highly skilled of their number for their efforts. But, for the most part, the vast army of volunteers is uncompensated.
Perhaps Rockaway has been on the leading edge of a nationwide trend. As if to document the effects of the economic meltdown, headlines from the New York Times announce: “From Ranks of Jobless, a Flood of Volunteers” (March 2009), and “Retirees Trade Work for Rent at Cash-Poor Parks” (February 2010). The New York City Parks Department offers grants to local groups that apply to become stewards of a neighborhood park, and recently launched the “Greeter Corps” to more formally structure the training and supervision of volunteers in the parks, and to provide perks for those willing to do so.
Parks departments are not the only municipal entities taking advantage of this trend. New York City schools have “Learning Leaders,” volunteer parents who attend training and conferences before serving in classrooms, and the auxiliary fire and police units have long been a part of small-town Amerca. Both Broad Channel and Rockaway Point benefit from such volunteer efforts.
This trend poses a challenge to municipal labor unions and the workers they represent. Unless you are skilled enough to land a job in the health care, technology or utility sectors, you could face a choice these days between being unemployed or underemployed. Taxpayers understandably chafe at the cost of paying government workers who – quite frankly – have some of the best jobs on the planet in terms of pay, benefits and working conditions, and in many cases, don’t seem to be very dedicated or appreciative.
To an extent, this trend also creates difficulties for unresponsive bureaucrats supervising such workers. Some prefer to be left to their own battles for turf and political influence within their agencies, and rarely have time to listen to park users. When they do, they hire expensive consultants to do the listening and the message always seems to get lost or diluted.
The efforts of volunteers can often unwittingly expose the neglect of the officials charged with protecting these cultural resources. To cite a recent example – it appears that there was not a soul in Rockaway aware that a bronze bust of Jacob Riis was missing from Riis Park for over 40 years. That is, until a class of fresh-faced young students from a private school in Jamaica Estates adopted Riis as their class hero, doggedly researched his legacy, and eventually raised $30,000 to re-commission and reinstall the statue on its pedestal on April 17. I attended the ceremony and applauded heartily for the students, whose efforts moved me to tears. But I can’t believe that no one in the community knew about the missing statue, which was obviously valued at far more than the $30,000 replacement cost, since it dated to 1940!
Note to Congressman Weiner — as a taxpayer, I want to see a written inventory of the cultural resources that have been entrusted to the administrators of Gateway National Recreation Area.
Somewhere on the punch list from that recently-completed multi-million dollar renovation of the Riis Park Bathhouse it should say:
MISSING: likeness of Jacob Riis, cast bronze, circa 1940. Maybe it will turn up some day on Antiques Roadshow. Barbara Eisenstadt would have loved it.