This weekend, millions of New Yorkers will be flocking to the city's 1,700 parks and playgrounds, as well as its 14 miles of beaches, to enjoy the holiday weekend.
To their chagrin, they may discover that the city's green spaces are not what they used to be – or, rather, that they are too much like the parks of the bad old days that used to serve as the butt of every late-night talk show host's joke.
Once among the most celebrated public works programs in the nation, our parks have again become dumping grounds, their maintenance and safety buckling under the weight of crippling budget cuts coupled with a lack of accountability from City Hall.
The evidence is right before our eyes. Prospect Park, Mullaly Park and Flushing Meadows look like garbage dumps after big weekends like this one; charcoal smolders under majestic trees. Hypodermic needles dot the lush landscape in Highbridge Park. Glass-strewn, dust-bowl playing fields are the norm. Invasive species strangle many a formerly-scenic green landscape.
But garbage, deteriorating facilities and other nuisances are hardly the only problem.
Within a single 24-hour period in June, three people were stabbed and a woman was raped in park incidents throughout the city. Over the last 14 weeks, there have been 13 shootings, including five deaths, and more than a dozen stabbings and muggings, not to mention numerous sexual assaults and gang activity. Since January, there have been more than 150 arrests on park land, including 98 in Union Square alone. And the long, hot summer has just begun.
The days of the Central Park Jogger, when many thought that it was dangerous to merely enter a park after dusk, seem so far behind. So why is this happening again? One reason is that the Parks Department's Park Enforcement Patrol, whose responsibility is to ensure "the safe use of parks," is severely understaffed. While they don't carry firearms, PEP is the only uniformed law enforcement agency dedicated exclusively to city parks.
There were once 450 PEP officers in the city; today, there are fewer than a hundred. On any given day, there could be as few as two dedicated officers available to patrol an entire borough – if any at all. No wonder, then, that secluded and little-patrolled areas of city parks have become havens for criminal activity.
As for how we got to this deplorable point, the answer is one that we hear all too often in New York: money. Over the last 45 years, no other city agency has lost a greater percentage of its workforce than the Parks Department, and City Hall routinely allocates only one-third of what the Parks Department actually needs. Even in times of billion-dollar surpluses, parks were shortchanged, a clear sign of where City Hall's priorities lie.
Unsurprisingly, recent economic woes have only made the situation worse. While both elected officials and ordinary citizens claim to love parks, they rarely come out to fight unjust cuts or reductions in service. Meanwhile, cuts to other municipal services are met with a swift outcry from concerned New Yorkers.
But maybe because some elected officials unfortunately view parks as a leisure bonus, not a necessity, they will continue to lose out on vital funding. After all, the thinking goes, we need cops, but we can do without bird watching tours.
The budget approved on June 24 allocates just $233 million in tax levy funds for 29,000 acres of public parks. This represents far less than one-half of one percent of the city's $66 billion budget – for an agency responsible for 14% of the city's land.
This budget also anticipates that 665 full-time parks employees will voluntarily resign or retire: Their positions would become seasonal. If they don't agree to resign or retire, the city has threatened layoffs. In other words, further cuts in maintenance and other parks services are to be expected.
Meanwhile, the Parks Department is in dire need of thousands of additional workers. But the public has been told that the funds needed to hire skilled laborers, recreation specialists, gardeners, pruners, foresters, plumbers and maintenance staff are not available for our public parks. That, in short, is why your neighborhood park looks like a barbarian horde just rolled through.
This is shameful, especially since other city services have somehow managed to avoid painful cuts in the latest round of budget negotiations with City Hall. Despite threatening more than 4,000 teacher layoffs, Mayor Bloomberg will not take that drastic (and unpopular) measure. Twenty firehouses won't be closed. Libraries will escape draconian cuts. So will the Police Department.
In fact, a select few parks will continue to do just fine because of private funding through entities like the Central Park Conservancy. But the city's increasing reliance on public-private partnerships has resulted in a vastly inequitable distribution of services. It has quickly become a tale of two cities – the Central Parks and High Lines of this world are more than secure in their finances, while smaller outer borough green spaces that don't have external funding streams suffer. But if parks are an essential service, then the city must fund them equally. To ask for private funding is an unfair solution.
As is, though, it is no secret that a disproportionate number of the most severe park-related issues exist in poor neighborhoods where people of color and low income live – and in some middle-class areas, as well. This is, of course, a great irony, since these communities are most desperate for public space and public services. It is no surprise that a woman was sexually assaulted in Inwood Hill Park earlier this month, the day after a young woman was gunned down on the Riegelmann Boardwalk in Brighton Beach, which is overseen by the Parks Department. Both are in outlying neighborhoods where oversight is low.
But if we are one city, then we need one standard for our parks.
Perhaps the most galling thing about all this is that City Hall is increasingly using our parks as cash cows. The city estimates that it will take in $142.9 million dollars from park revenue this year – while, outrageously, allocating only a fraction of the funds the embattled agency needs.
For one, Mayor Bloomberg's administration quietly pushed through massive recreation fee increases. The city duplicitously tried to claim the increases were designed "to help defray the costs for the Department to maintain fields, courts and recreation centers," even though the money does not go to parks, but to the city's general fund.
Parks are a lot more than the lungs of the city; they are a vital economic engine. It has been proven time and time again that properly maintained parks spur economic investment and greatly impact the quality of life. They provide refuge for roughly 8.1 million residents and more than 47 million visitors alike. There's a reason that property values near well-maintained parks are higher; and why, when those parks sink, the real estate market follows.
If New York is committed to having a comprehensive park system, then that system must be adequately funded. The health and well-being of our great city depend on it. It is quite simple: Safe, properly maintained and well-programmed parks save lives.
But without a greater investment, the public can expect more crime and dirtier lawns. To avoid that, the city must allocate funding that reflects the true needs of the Parks Department. Otherwise, our parks will continue their decline.