By Lee Landor
[Note: This article originally appeared in the Queens Chronicle on May 22, 2008. This content is the rightful property of the Queens Chronicle. Photos were not immediately available.]
Some Howard Beach residents have said that most people don’t know Queens has a national park, but it does: the Frank M. Charles Memorial Park.
It is a national preserve that sits within the 6,000-acre Jamaica Bay Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a 26,000-acre, three-unit national park operated by the National Park Service.
Charles Park is in a devastating state of disrepair as a result of what locals believe to be years of neglect by Gateway’s management. Now they want the feds to step up to the plate.
Taking a break from his daily tennis session on a recent afternoon, park regular Anthony LaSaracina took this reporter on a tour of the recreation area, pointing out along the way damaged fences, broken water fountains, overgrown shrubbery, dead trees, and, most devastating to the tennis enthusiast, the deteriorating and dirty tennis courts.
Gateway’s failure to maintain the park regularly in the last decade and a half has created these “deplorable” conditions, LaSaracina said. “It’s as if (Charles Park) is in a lost world and no one cares about it.”
But a small group of extremely dedicated community members do care. In fact, they are so deeply dedicated to their mission of improving Charles Park — and the rest of the 6,000-acre Jamaica Bay Unit — that they’ve become known as crusaders. “When people see me coming, they’re, like, ‘Oh no. What’s she gonna ask us to do now?’” quipped Dorothy McClosky, founder of the Friends of Charles Park Committee, on a recent Sunday morning stroll through the park.
Since taking up this cause 13 years ago and leading the fight against the park service ever since, McClosky has acquired about $1.5 million for park repairs and a host of other improvements. She has earned the respect of numerous community leaders and area residents, and received support from every level of government.
“Everybody has a vested interest in this park,” McClosky said, which is why “we have not given up and we continually work.” About 10 years ago, the committee petitioned Congressman Anthony Weiner — who represented the park until 2001 when redistricting placed it in Congressman Gregory Meeks’ territory — for funding.
This resulted in a $1 million congressional appropriation, about $185,000 of which was used to repair the interior of Charles Park, including repaving. Some $70,000 was used to redo the children’s play area and another $75,000 to redo the park’s three ballfields. But, McClosky said, “you wouldn’t know it.”
Weeds have grown at least ankle-high in each ballfield, hiding from sight dog waste and any bump or hole over which a player could trip. The uneven ground caused 10 broken ankles in the last two years, according to McClosky.
Nick LoPrinzi, an area resident who grew up playing baseball in the park, is fed-up with the dangerous and burdensome conditions of the ballfields. It has become routine for him and members of the little league teams he coaches to arrive at the park two hours before a scheduled game to remove weeds, fill in holes and make sure there is runoff on the base path.
“It’s a shame. You want the kids to play baseball, but you don’t want to make it a four-hour process just to play one game,” LoPrinzi said. “We get promises and promises and promises that (Gateway will) take care of it, but you can barely get garbage (cans) emptied and bathrooms opened, never mind getting the fields fixed.”
Surrounding the largest ball field is a fence intended to protect players and visitors inside and outside the field. A broken segment of the fence — hanging dangerously close to the ground of the field — does just the opposite: it is a safety hazard for players who run beneath it and children who will, inevitably, climb it.
This costly damage was preventable, according to LaSaracina. Supposedly, Gateway was repeatedly asked by concerned park regulars to remove a dead tree that once stood directly across from the fence. Two years of complaints accomplished nothing: the tree came down on its own during a windstorm earlier this year.
Although no one was injured, the fallen tree caused some suffering for park visitors who must now contend with a damaged fence indefinitely. “God knows when they’ll get to it,” LaSaracina said. The ball field fence will be replaced as soon as a contractor is selected for the project, according to Gateway spokesman Brian Feeney.
When asked about the overall maintenance inadequacy, Feeney blamed limited resources. “There’s no doubt that we do not have enough resources to maintain every facility within the Jamaica Bay Unit on a continual basis,” he said. “You can imagine the enormity of trying to care for 6,000 acres in recreational and national resources. And, we do our very best to maintain everything with the resources we have available, but it’s an infinite number of resources.”
But he is confident that visitors to each of the Jamaica Bay Unit parks, which include Riis Park in the Rockaways and the Canarsie Pier in Brooklyn, will see improvements this summer, as Gateway has hired additional seasonal maintenance personnel.
Members of the Friends of Charles Park Committee have heard this all before and they just don’t buy it. “We’ve given up on the park service because when we call, they don’t respond,” McClosky said, noting that, while Gateway neglects to uphold its duties, both Weiner and Meeks have fulfilled theirs. Even city and state politicians, including City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr., state Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and state Sen. Serphin Maltese, have tried to lend a hand, despite having no oversight on federal land.
Gateway needs to “facilitate its funding better,” McClosky said, “and tell the community where the funding goes” instead of relying on local organizations like the Friends of Charles Park Committee to hold fundraisers, petition congress members for money and donate their own time to cleaning the park. “It’s a federal park. It should be treated like a federal park and Gateway needs to step up to the plate” — the community has already done more than enough.
Feeney said that Gateway relies “heavily” on volunteer efforts and that such efforts are appreciated. But, he added, there needs to be an understanding that as a result of budget constraints, Gateway is simply unable to do everything it would like to do.
This may be so, but McClosky is demanding documented proof. She wants Gateway to provide annual reports on its overall budget breakdown — how it distributes funding among the three units — and the specifics of its spending on the Jamaica Bay Unit.
According to Feeney, Gateway National Recreation Area has a $22 million annual budget that covers the entire 26,000-acre park, which spreads across three boroughs and coastal New Jersey. From the 2008 budget, the Jamaica Bay Unit in Queens and Brooklyn received $7.5 million, while $4.5 million was allocated to the Staten Island Unit and $6.3 was used for the Sandy Hook Unit. Feeney did not account for the remaining $3.7 million.
At issue is efficiency, according to several park visitors who claimed the city Department of Parks and Recreation would do a much better job of maintaining Charles Park. But McClosky believes she and her fellow park supporters would do the best job of all caring for the preserve.
In the last decade alone, they’ve done more than Gateway has or than DPR would do, she said. In addition to the $1.5 million they raised, members of the Friends of Charles Park Committee and a number of other local organizations secured a $25,000 grant from the Hudson River Foundation and raised about $3,000 to plant 30 trees.
McClosky’s next goal is to secure a congressional earmark for Gateway’s Jamaica Bay Unit of $1 million every year for five or six years, with the condition that her committee, along with other area residents and groups, determine the funding distribution.
Her top priorities are maintenance and park rangers. “There is absolutely no enforcement of the rules” in Charles Park. This can be especially dangerous on summer weekends, when thousands of visitors swarm park grounds.
Some patrons do not pick up after their dogs, others park illegally — both on the street and in the park itself — and there are those who treat Charles Park, and the wildlife that frequently visits it, with disrespect and cruelty.
Just two weeks ago, park visitors found a dead swan that had found its way to the park from the nearby Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge Center. Evidently, it had been killed. “This is a natural wildlife preserve,” McClosky said. “We can’t afford to destroy it.”
Although she often feels both encouraged and discouraged simultaneously, McClosky has never wavered in her determination to save Charles Park, and she vows to forge ahead. “Did we win the war?” she asked. “No. But we’ve won tiny, little battles all along the way.” This, she believes, inspires her anew every single day.