Charles Park still in shabby shape

Courtesy Google Images

Courtesy Google Images
Local national recreation area still in poor condition despite local advocates’ fight for improvements.

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Queens Chronicle on July 10, 2008. This content is the rightful property of the Queens Chronicle. Photos were not immediately available.]

Most people wouldn’t be happy to see rain on the Fourth of July, but Dorothy McCloskey almost breathed a sigh of relief when she saw cloudy skies on Independence Day.

This meant there wouldn’t be hordes of people milling about Howard Beach’s Frank M. Charles Memorial Park, which in turn meant she would find less litter, overflowing trash cans and graffiti there the morning of July 8 — the day the NY Junior Tennis League program began its six-week season for the fourth consecutive year.

McCloskey, president of the Friends of Charles Park Committee and director of the league program she brought to Howard Beach in 2004, has learned what to expect at the park after 13 years of battling with its operator — Gateway National Park —over insufficient maintenance and lack of park rangers. Without enforcement, rowdy crowds visiting the national park tend to forget how to obey rules and leave the recreation area in an unsightly state. Although McCloskey’s primary focus is getting Gateway to cooperate, she also had one message for fellow park goers: “This is a natural wildlife preserve. We can’t afford to destroy it.”

But even without rowdy visitors, Charles Park appears neglected. McCloskey’s crew of 65 tennis students gathered on the tennis courts early Tuesday morning only to find the usual: hundreds of broken shells dropped by seagulls flying overhead covered the deteriorating courts. McCloskey wasn’t surprised to see that Gateway’s maintenance staff had neither swept nor weeded the courts, which are in desperate need of resurfacing.

But she happily announced to her students and their parents that, after four years of complaints from the Friends of Charles Park Committee, the park service had replaced all five nets on the tennis court and the wind screens on the fence surrounding it.

With children as young as 6 playing on the courts, McCloskey was worried the sharp and slippery broken shells would cut their legs or send them sliding across the court. “We need at least six or seven sweepers to get the courts in a useable condition,” she said, adding that they need to be swept weekly. That they aren’t is frustrating, but it does not deter McCloskey’s program from using the courts five days a week from 9 a.m. to noon.

She is determined to make good use of the $25,000 provided for the free tennis program by a number of sponsors, including Congressmen Anthony Weiner and Gregory Meeks, state Sen. Serphin Maltese, Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. Gateway National Park is also a sponsor, but “the good that they do is outweighed because they can’t seem to get a hold on the maintenance,” which, at best, is inconsistent, McCloskey said.

One example of such inconsistency is the park’s handling of overgrown shrubbery, which encroached on benches and poked through holes in the chainlink fence surrounding the tennis courts, posing what McCloskey considered to be a danger to children. After at least four months of hearing complaints about the dense bushes and requests to trim it, the park service responded by completely cutting down portions of different bushes and leaving others untouched. Like a bad haircut, the unevenness and asymmetry of the shearing left some areas once hidden by lush brush sitting baldly in the sun.

Gateway’s fickle management also ordered maintenance staff to paint over graffiti on a locked shed near the tennis courts, but it appears the instructions were unclear: while the front of the shed bears a solid coat of fresh paint, scrawled on its side — which faces the unkempt ballfields — are the tags of an unknown vandal.

Further adding to Charles Park’s shabby appearance is the broken fence that hangs over the ballfields. It collapsed under the weight of a dead tree, which fell on it during a heavy storm in March. The situation could have entirely been avoided if Gateway had spent $250 to remove the dead tree two years prior, when McCloskey suggested doing so. Instead, the park now has to spend $7,000 to repair the fence.

Gateway is in the process of searching for a contractor, but impatient park visitors demanded that something had to be done to secure the fence — a safety hazard for players who run beneath it and children who will, inevitabley, climb it. Gateway finally constructed a temporary wooden fence around the twisted steel wires.

Despite the tremendous support — both advocative and financial — McCloskey and the Friends of Charles Park Committee receive from local politicians and community members, the park always seems to sink back into a state of neglect. Employees at Gateway “try very hard to work with us,” McCloskey said, “but they don’t have the proper leadership to carry out the endeavors of maintaining the park.”

What needs to happen immediately, according to the program director, is a review and analysis of Gateway’s budget for the Jamaica Bay Unit, which contains Charles Park. Gateway needs to “facilitate its funding better,” McCloskey said, “and tell the community where the funding goes” instead of relying on local organizations 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.

But 13 years worth of effort have not been completely fruitless for McCloskey: maintenance of Charles Park has improved overall — especially with the recent repair and upgrade work done on benches and picnic tables — and respect for its importance has developed among members of the community.
“This is a beautiful spot in Queens,” McCloskey said. “We don’t call it the Jewel of Jamaica Bay for nothing.”

Saving a neglected national park

Courtesy Google Earth

Courtesy Google Earth
A handful of dedicated local residents have been working to shed led on the neglected Frank M. Charles Memorial Park — a national park in Howard Beach, Queens.

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.