• Poetry


Urban Parks 2008: Opening Session

I’ll be blogging the Urban Parks conference session as I attend them. The opening session occurred yesterday evening.

Luis Garden Acosta, founder of El Puente, a community based human rights and environmental organization in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, and recipient of the Heinz Award for the Human Condition, provided a rousing keynote address, “Parks: The Common Ground for Democracy and All Human Rights.” The speech was notable for spurring the largely non-Latino audience of park advocates and professionals to stand up and chant “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” Acosta stressed the importance of creating broad alliances between diverse community and ethnic groups in order to effectively advocate for community health issues. He honestly described the challenges of reaching out to Chasidic community leaders in Williamsburg and was surprisingly blunt in describing the tensions between the Latino and Chasidic communities there. More detailed notes of his speech are below.

Tupper Thomas, administrator for Prospect Park, president of the Prospect Park Alliance, and board chair of the City Parks Alliance introduced the speakers. Thomas credited Meg Cheever, founder and president of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, for the genesis and vision behind the conference five years ago. She then introduced Gary Saulson, Director of Corporate Realty Services for PNC Financial Services Group, noting approvingly Saulson’s disapproval of using pesticides in his home lawn care. PNC is a major philanthopist for city park facilities in Pittsburgh and internationally touts the most LEED certified buildings of any megacorp. It’s nice to see a corporation that sports its plumage by way of showing off its LEED certifications and aesthetic sensibilities in landscape architecture. Saulson was particularly proud to show off two downtown “gateway” parks in Pittsburgh that it has designed, PNC Firstside Park (completed) and PNC Triangle Park (still in its design phase).

PNC Firstside Park (image below) was developed on the site of the former Pittsburgh Public Safety Building, an “insignificant building of no historical importance” according to Saulson. PNC purchased the site from the city for an undisclosed but admittedly exorbitant amount after negotiations. Saulson was pleased to describe the deconstruction of the building, where rather than conventional demolition, the building was taken apart and its constituent building materials (steel, cement, etc.) recycled or repurposed. I had only previously heard of this sort of process occuring in Japan so it was wonderful to know that PNC was promoting this best practice as well.

PNC Firstside Park, Pittsburgh, PA

PNC Firstside Park, Pittsburgh, PA

The 1.5 acre, PNC Firstside Park looks amazing, but I also think that the desire to have a corporate park, albeit public park, in front of their downtown building speaks to me as a way of incorporating a bit of an suburban office park image within the city. But hey, they can afford it, and so long as it is a truly public park, freely accessible as a public commons, why should anyone complain. On the contrary, this sort of expensive park planning by a private entity is extremely laudable.

PNC Triangle Park (rendering below) was also billed by Saulson as a “gateway” park. I’m never really impressed by the use of these buzzwords, but again, no one can really argue wth the public asset that PNC will be providing. Kudos to them.

PNC Triangle Park (rendering)

PNC Triangle Park (rendering)

After Saulson, Thomas introduced Richard Dolesh, Director of Policy, National Recreation and Park Association. Dolesh provided a brief historical summary of the organization, and in particular I noted that the NRPA is just the latest incarnation of an org with roots in the late 19th century. The current NRPA was created in the 1960s and I’m interested to note how the focus of the org has changed over the last century from urban to suburban. Dolesh pleaded with the conference attendees to recognize the dire need for more park advocacy and lobbying noting that the federal Urban Parks Recreation and Recovery Act (1978) that provided matching funds for urban park maintenance has been dead for the past seven years. He did note one recent success, the No Child Left Inside Act, passed by the House of Representatives last week. This call for urgent advocacy from the leading umbrella org for park professionals and friend-of-park advocates, provided a good segue to Acosta’s keynote address.

Below are my casual notes from his speech. Personal commentary is in brackets. More substantial criticisms follow.


Acosta brings greetings from “the People’s Republic of Brooklyn and the ‘hipster capitol’ of Williamsburg.” While recently in Beijing, Acosta is surprised to find a Chinese news report about Williamsburg. The news report does not mention how the neighborhood’s diverse population also includes a substantial number of Chasidim and Latinos. [Acosta is a community activist who has been active in the neighborhood since the late 70s, way before the influx of hipsters in the 90s.]

Acosta talks about the late 70s when south Williamsburg was an extremely dangerous and largely Latino neighborhood. A teenage gang capitol. A crack capitol. [Crack in the late 70s?]. The organization Acosta created, El Puente (The Bridge) initiated a program to bring gang members on weekend retreats boating down whitewater rapids. After experiences like this, gang leaders wanted to do more with their life than market drugs. [Acosta’s work in El Puente during this period is what brought him recognition though the Heinz Award in 1984.]

Acosta brings three examples of neighborhood coalitions that have made an important difference in health, youth and family service and crime.

1) Outward Bound. Simple objective: playing touch football in George Washington Plaza park. Major problem was that the park was a major venue for drug dealing and thus dangerous for recreation, [least of all because of all the scattered glass vials littering the park]. Question was how to confront the problem but avoid violence with the drug dealers. Outward Bound organized protest days for three straight years that combined community shame with having this drug park with a call to city action to clean up the park. They used the symbolism of the statue of George Washington’s horse, the ass half of which faced the park center, to make the case that the city’s attitude towards the park was disrespectful and the park needed redesign. Newspaper photos of the ass also showed the graffiti and crack vials on and below the statue. After the thrid year, the park commissioner consented and the park was redesigned. [Significantly, the most important design change was not the reorientation of Washinton’s horse’s ass but the removal of the high walls surrounding the park that made the park feel unsafe. Clear sight lines remain an important design component for both the psychological perception of safety and functional application of surveillance and law enforcement in a public commons.]

2) Apologies for not capturing enough detail on Acosta’s second example, the clearance of a vacant lot (I think ) piled with two stories of garbage. Not clear on the name of the coalition or group responsible. The site is now a public park and community garden, but first the garbage had to be cleared by community volunteers and the toxic topsoil completely removed and replaced. Veggies grown in the garden are now sold at local corner groceries and bodegas.

3) [Acosta’s third example was by far the most sensational as well as the most recent.] A group called the Toxic Avengers fights NYC and the state for the removal of a neighborhood storage facility for chemical and nuclear toxic waste owned by Radiac Research Corpoaration. Since the 1960s, Radiac had housed the waste onsite in barrel storage. The design of the facility was not up to code — jst one example of many, the only door out of building in case of a fire was through nuclear side of storage buidling. Folks living on block didn’t know this facility even existed and to what degree they were at risk in case of an accidental fire and explosion. There was no bureaucratic lever to close it down and the facility seemed grandfathered into its current location. According to officials the facility could never have been licensed today. The Toxic Avengers mobilized much of the community and especially its church leadership. They made note on the sidewalk and roadways in a growing radius around the facility how many seconds they had to live before being engulfed in a toxic cloud if an explosion were to occur. The Toxic Avengers achieved success in getting Radiac to give up license. They successfully lobbied the state legislature to sponsor legislation to disallow toxic storage in the manner that had been permitted.

The success of this action led to an important grassroots effort to oppose a large garbage transfer station envisioned by former mayor (Guiliani?) along their waterfront. The community wanted a viable park there instead, and the community got this park approved. Acosta was especially proud to note that even the Chasidim love to use this park. [This seemed to relate to tensions later described between the Chasidim and community activist groups in Williamsburg that Acosta goes int o detail a short time later.]

Acosta returns to the general theme of his speech. [When community activists make a case before city and state government they need to pose the issue as representing a holistic response to numerous problems, rather than as a “parks issue” because doing so will translate very quickly into a parks budget versus health services budgetary question by bureaucrats. Community activists must dodge this sort of categorization.] The issues is not parks vs. health or parks vs. education funding. Acosta says “green and open spaces is the fundamental connection. It is what makes us human.”

Acosta calls “a fundamental human rights issue: to be one with nature.” Acosta’s mother was “ripped” out of rural, idyllic Puerto Rico in the 1930s and dropped into concrete Fort Green the most concentrated and dense housing project in the world. Having been one with nature in Puerto Rico, she managed to remain one with nature in her housing project despite her poverty. Filled her apartment with plants. Acosta says “the earth is within us, we have to connect all the time.” We must oppose “the insatiable force for brick and mortar development.”

“We are living in a crisis but not of financial systems: it is a crisis of our humanity.” Acosta asks, “what kind of a human being are we becoming? Come to NYC and see what the future of the country is today!” [This remark perplexes me. The country is in more peril from unrestricted urban sprawl, not the exceptional population densities of megacities like New York. The transformation of rural countryside into privatised lawn space of low density disconnected automobile-oriented housing subdivisions is the most present danger to an accessible open public commons. This is not to say that residents in concentrated urban neighborhoods do not need more greenspace. They need more absolutely, and they need their existing parks to be well maintained to preserve them as facilities from the stress of their overuse. They also need many many more greenroofs!]

Those of us who work to reclaim brownfields are part of a “green resistance, championing connecting to the earth.” Acosta proclaims, “we are radicals. we need to become revolutionaries!” [This is a call to arms. I am surprised by the tone of this language and wondering how it will go over with my colleagues.] Acosta continues, “(parks) are essential to our humanity. We need to reinvigorate our movement.” Acosta calls for standards for how much greenspace a human needs to live healthfully. He compares this with the issue of poverty. “From Presidents JFK and Johnson we learned that we are as strong as our weakest link.” After researching the issue of poverty, policy makers introduced the idea of a poverty threshold. If you don’t obtain a certain amount of money you cannot sustain your life in this society, and this became known as the poverty line. Louise suggests a “green line” or minimal daily requirement for open space. “Demand it!” he exclaims to applause.

[Acosta returns to the coalition to remove the Radiac facility from Williamsburg and how it led to a a coalition to oppose a toxic waste incinerator in the neighborhood.] Explains Acosta, there was a “No talk protocol between Chasidic leadership and Hispanic leaders.” The chasidim in the neighborhood controlled key community assets from housing to public schools. Acosta brings up corruption among Chassidim. 6 million dollars stolen and documented. Vigilante Chasidim beating up Blacks in the neighborhood, even Black cops. [Could Acosta be referencing the recent shameful beating of a Black policemen by Chasidic vigilante thugs in Crown Heights??? Crown Heights is not Williamsburg! Also the Chasidim of Williamsburg are Satmar and in Crown Heights they are Lubavitch. But whatever. For Acosta, this nuance may be irrelevant for this speech. Acosta later explained to me that the Satmar vigilantes had beaten up a Black policemen in the early 90s and that he wasn’t referring to the recent assault on a black patrolman in Crown Heights by Lubavitch vigilantes.] Acosta continues, “They (the Chasidim) controlled the housing, controlled the schools regardless of there being no Chasidic kids in the schools.” Really dangerous tensions existed between the communities. And no communication on any level. But for this issue with Radiac there was a dire need for a broad representative coalition that included the Chasidim. What to do?

Acosta went to the Jewish Community Relations Council and its associate executive director and director of government relations, David M. Pollack. [UPDATE: According to The Activist’s Handbook: A Primer (p. 86), El Puente contacted Rabbi David Neiderman and the Jewish org was United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg. David Pollack emailed me to clarify the story today: Pollack was the one who introduced Neiderman to Acosta. Pollack writes, “I brought Garden Acosta and Niederman together using the argument that Hispanic and Hasidic children would glow in the dark equally if there should be a mishap at Radiac. I also managed to bring Rabbi Niederman and David Pagan of Los Sures together in a joint development project.”] In Acosta’s telling, when the Rabbi arrived at El Puente’s headquarters after asking “will I be safe?” from violence visiting a largely Hispanic community forum, Acosta ensured his safety and the rabbi was welcomed by the Latinos with overwhelming love. (The work of Pollack and the arrival of Neiderman signaled a sea change in relations between the Chasidim and Latino groups in Williamsburg. [More on this in a 1994 article in the New York Times.]

The outcome of this coming together was a Community Alliance for the Environment. The coalition to stop 55 story incinerator (that was already legislated, designed, and planned) included Chasidim and Latinos and Italians and Poles. Then Governor Pataki was lobbied to overturn the law to build the incinerator. The coalition succeeded. Acosta is effuesive in describing his joy in watching a 15 years old Chasidic youth chanting in broken Spanish El pueblo unido jamás será vencido alongside a 15 year old Latino youth who was very patiently teaching him how to pronounce the words.

Acosta concludes, “This (Park advocacy) is a struggle and not a delicate matter. We must be militant! We must be radical.” We all stand up and say El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.


Thus ends the first evening of the conference. Just a few notes on Acosta’s address. First of all, I believe that Acosta’s important community work needs to be celebrated and extolled as a banner for bridge building between disconnected communities. I also wish he prefaced his examples with the year that these coalitions took place. It was only the occasional detail, like the fact that they were lobbying former Governor Pataki, that clued me in that the example he had mentioned took place over a decade ago.

Besides Acosta’s concern that the future of the U.S. will look like Lewis Mumford’s 1950s dystopic vision of a concretized necropolis, I was taken by surprise by Acosta’s call for park supporters to think of themselves as “Green Militants.” I just don’t understand how appropriating the term militant to describe even an idealized passion for our advocacy can help the parks movement. I understand that in the context of his speech he was trying to rev up the audience in how they perceive themselves. I just don’t think that sort of language even helps park advocates and professionals identify their own work as environmentalists in a useful way. Yes we are environmental professionals and some of us even share his particularly romantic environmental perspective. I think I understand where he’s coming from but I don’t share in his call for identifying as radical or militant. I want environmentalism to be completely and totally mainstream, and the perception of environmentalism as a fringe philosophy plays into the politics of the enemies of environmentalism. And in any case, I believe the idea of environmental work as radical is at odds with current public perception — especially after Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq raised awareness of the related issues of overreliance on fossil fuels and global climate change.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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