Vol. 13, No. 11 June 1 - 14, 2000


THE STATE OF OUR PARKS -- Fifth in a Series

To Be or Not to Be (a Park)?

Residents Campaign for Recreational Use of Three Area Plots


A traffic island and a chunk of unused street may not seem like your typical candidates for parkland, but in some densely packed parts of the northwest Bronx, residents have become rather creative in transforming non-traditional open spaces.

Communities have launched efforts to claim three local plots of land -- the Risse Street Triangle, the Castaldo Playground and a piece of Oliver Place -- as park spaces, aspiring to beautify the neighborhood, promote safety, and, above all, give kids a place to play outdoors.

The efforts have brought together concerned residents, block associations, elected officials, park officials and a local public school. So far, they have been successful in converting two of the areas into parkland and are still pushing for the city to claim the Castaldo Playground, which has been locked up for two decades.

Now Technically Parkland,
Residents Want to See the Real Thing on Oliver Place
Fordham Bedford residents have for some time been accustomed to seeing Oliver Place, between Marion and Decatur avenues, used as the local dump, where furniture, refrigerators and other trash is regularly disposed of.

But now, residents hope all that will change. That's because the Department of Transportation (DOT) turned over the fenced property to the Parks Department, after community residents campaigned to make the plot into a play area for children.

The problem, complained residents, was that kids played on the garbage-strewn site anyway. "They played in there when it was dirty," said Sally Young, who has led the fight to transform the property. "You couldn't take the kids out of there."

"One of my neighbors went there himself with his gloves and put all the garbage and broken furniture in one corner [so the kids could play]," Young added.

For youth in the area, it became a hangout since the nearest playground was a good walk away, at PS 8 on Bainbridge Avenue and Mosholu Parkway.

"In the summer, I have to walk at least 10 blocks to take my kids to the park," said Natacha Casanova, a Decatur Avenue resident. "I told my kids there's going to be a park right here and they're very excited."

But the remote area has become a hangout for drug dealers, say residents. Young and other members of the Oliver Place-Decatur Block Association, working with the Bedford Park Neighborhood Alliance, believe turning the steep stretch of land into a park will not only give kids a decent place to play, but also that it will deter drug dealing.

Residents took their case to the DOT, which had sealed off the Oliver Place block years ago, because it was deemed too steep for vehicles. After de-mapping the street from the official books in 1998, the DOT handed the property over to the Parks Department.

Residents who toured the spot with Bronx Parks Commissioner Bill Castro on April 16 got a glimpse into future plans for the park. "It's an unusual lot because it's on a slope," Castro said. "So we're limited in what we can do." He added that the Parks Department will collaborate with Green Thumb, an agency within the Parks Department that supports community gardens, to work on Oliver Place.

So far, plans include constructing a sitting area and a garden area. But Castro said he does not know when work will begin and that there is currently no capital money for the project. The Parks Department also needs to determine a cost estimate for renovations, Castro said.

Casanova said once the park is completed, she and other neighbors are willing to chip in to help maintain it and lock the gates at night. Also, they plan to keep an eye on the park to make sure there is no dumping or drug activity.

But now their main focus is to get the renovation work moving.

Although the city cleaned the area a few weeks ago, garbage has already begun building up again. Weeds continue to overrun the dirt lot and a tree that has fallen on the plot still hasn't been removed.

"I pass by there everyday and I haven't seen any work," Casanova said. "My kids and I are still waiting."

Risse Street Triangle
Like Oliver Place, the Risse Street Triangle isn't exactly your typical play area. The triangle is essentially a traffic island, located at the top of the Grand Concourse near Jerome Avenue, but it also serves as a miniature park, with concrete benches, a garden area and lawn space for kids to run around.

In 1995, with support from Community Board 7, residents succeeded in convincing the Department of Transportation to turn the property over to the Parks Department. In the early 1980s local residents fended off proposals to develop the property and established a now- dormant community garden at the southern end of the green space. Residents and elected officials did not want the property, seen as the "entrance to the Grand Concourse," ceded to a donut shop -- one among many suitors -- recalled Barbara Stronczer, the chair of Community Board 7's Parks Committee.

Although it is not official parkland, the Parks Department maintains the triangle, which is still under the jurisdiction of the DOT.

In addition to the garden area, the rest of the park consists of trees, open lawn and cement rectangles used as sitting areas. There are also benches on the perimeter of the southern end of the triangle. Most of the park is surrounded by iron gates that are usually locked. Stronczer said it is maintained that way because of concerns that the park would be vandalized or used by vagrants since it is rather isolated. But she said she would like to see residents resume gardening at the triangle and perhaps branch out to maintain the larger park area.

But even now the site is put to considerable use by a local school, which has a key to the gates. When the weather is agreeable, teachers from the Bronx New School (PS 51) around the block on Van Cortlandt Avenue East, take their students -- up to 100 at a time -- to the Risse Street Triangle for recess. Staff and parents at the school petitioned the DOT for use of the space since their own school has no schoolyard and no gymnasium, and have been using the triangle for almost three years now.

Even though parents and staff are happy to have access to the Risse Street Triangle, principal Esther Forrest pointed out that "it's not the same as a physical education class ... There's not much for them to do in the park."

Now, kids mainly play football and tag on the lawn. Forrest and parent Helene Hartman- Kutnowsky both say they would like to see some kind of climbing equipment for the kids.

Putting the Playground Back in Castaldo
The Bronx New School has been looking toward a more suitable area as a potential playground site for its students. The Castaldo Playground, located just half a block from the school on Villa Avenue, has been locked up for some 20 years, but both the school and local residents think it would make an ideal spot for a refurbished park.

Inside the fence that surrounds the Castaldo Playground, lie abandoned and deteriorated swing and climbing sets and two basketball backboards with no hoops. Garbage and broken glass now litters the unused paved lot.

The Bronx New School is interested in obtaining the property from the private owner, Albert Sorano, but so far negotiations have been fruitless. "We're trying to have the city take it over for back taxes," said Assemblyman Jeffrey Klein, who has been working with the school on the issue and has gotten the Bronx district attorney's office to assign work crews to paint over graffiti at the playground. "There's been no taxes paid for almost 20 years."

Sorano, though, responded that he does not intend to give the land away, saying he has invested plenty of his own money into the property over the years.

But school officials and parents will keep their sights set on the property. They say the ideal situation would be to have a playground that is maintained by the Parks Department for use by the school during the day, and for use by the community after school hours.

Klein said he would be willing to commit state money to renovate the property into a playground, should it fall into the hands of the city.

"Anything they do is a plus," said Angelo Aurichio, a Villa Avenue resident for the past 84 years. "It would keep the riffraff out of there." Aurichio said kids often sneak onto the private property and drink beer and smoke marijuana. The playground was operated for years by the now-defunct Assumption Security Patrol, which was headquartered on Villa Avenue.

"I'd like to see that playground become an oasis to the community," Klein said. "The school has absolutely no recreation area ... But unless [the city] moves it will just keep going on and on."

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