After 25 Years, Lewandowski Still Loving City Parks
By HEATHER HADDON
"I said, 'Don't complain to me, invite me to swim,'" said Lewandowski, looking at a picture of her and the women, all clad in swimsuits. "We met on the side of the pool."
Getting into the elements is one of things that Lewandowski most enjoys about her job, and with 25 years with the Parks Department, she's done plenty of it. The dynamic commissioner marked her anniversary with the agency on May 21, and she has no plans of leaving her post anytime soon.
"It's just the coolest job," confessed Lewandowski, 46. "I'm very fortunate."
Lewandowski's future in Parks began in 1979 when she took a summer job with the Urban Park Rangers -- a new city program to enforce regulations and educate the public about parks. Fresh out of SUNY-Farmingdale, the Queens native had considered working for a plant nursery until her father showed her an ad about the program. "He said, 'I think this would be good for you,'" she said.
A nature lover from her early days fishing with her dad, Lewandowski says she flourished as a ranger. During her eight years there, she patrolled Prospect Park on horseback, learned the difference between maples and oaks, and spread her love of parks to others.
She also found herself among other environmentalists, many of whom would go on to top positions in Parks. "[The Rangers] brought in a talent bank of young, energetic idealists who would one day . . .be running the agency," said city Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who now does just that.
Benepe joined the first ranger group when, like Lewandowski, he was 21. "We were babes in the woods," joked Benepe, who will reunite with the first class of Rangers during a 25th anniversary celebration later this year. "Parks were at a real low ebb . . . but we had to believe that they would get better."
Lewandowski did have that kind of faith, though things remained tough in the '80s. "The parks were in such disrepair," said Lewandowski, who managed Orchard Beach and the Bronx' pools from 1987 to 1990. City money was lacking, and many people weren't using their parks "positively," as she put it.
After moving to Queens as deputy chief of Operations, Lewandowski returned to the Bronx as chief of Operations in 1994 -- and noticed a difference. As general conditions in the borough improved, communities had begun to re-embrace their parks. "We were beginning to hear other voices," she said. "That was a good thing."
Today there are at least 120 parks advocacy groups in the Bronx, and while making time for all of them isn't easy, Lewandowski considers it a priority. "They complain, and it's legitimate," said Lewandowski, whom Benepe tapped to replace former commissioner Bill Castro in 2002. "They really are our eyes and ears."
Many advocates give high marks to Lewandowski for her responsiveness. "When she says she's going to look into something, she does it," said Margaret Groarke, a Mosholu Woodlawn South Community Coalition member. When Coalition members complained about some faulty pathways in the Williamsbridge Oval, Lewandowski drove out to check the next day, according to Groarke. Soon afterward, the stones were fixed.
Pat Logan, who works on park issues at the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, also praised Lewandowski's openness. "She's better than most borough commissioners," said Logan, who meets with her periodically to discuss issues ranging from grass maintenance to major capital improvements. "If you make a logical case, you always know she'll do everything she can to get it done."
Logan attributed that ability to Lewandowski's background in operations and her familiarity with how maintenance works. And Lewandowski does seem to enjoy getting outside, talking with maintenance staff, and drawing politicians' attention to problems -- even if it requires riding a horse to do it.
"I'll throw on my riding boots or my hiking boots," said Lewandowski, who took Council Member Madeline Provenzano on a horseback ride in 2002 to galvanize funding for Pelham Bay Park's bridle path. "I enjoy it."
Lewandowski also just clearly loves parks. A flip through her photo archives shows her all-smiles while biking, canoeing, shooting hoops, and even bobsledding in local parks. Recently, she and her husband took up sea kayaking.
"She's kind of the ideal park professional," Benepe said. "She's an athlete, she's a mother . . . and she's devoted to public service."
That devotion requires long hours. Lewandowski says she typically works 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., plus some weekends and evenings. Even during vacations, Lewandowski scouts out other parks. "I'll have photos of my family and then I'll have a photo of a pathway or a drainage ditch," she said.
Lewandowski often brings her husband, an MTA dispatcher, and her 18-year-old son to Parks events. "When I was younger, it was a cheap date," she said.
But advocates point out that, no matter how much pleasure Lewandowski gets from her work, it can't compensate for dwindling operations dollars. "Maintenance [staffing] hasn't kept pace," Logan said. "It's beyond what a really good parks manager can handle."
Lewandowski says operational innovations compensate for less staffing, and that capital funding has continued to flow to local projects (see story on this page). For the future, she hopes to add more landscaping in the parks, and now trains her staff in basic horticulture skills. "We want them to know the difference between a plant and a weed," she said. Waterways and greenways are also high on her wish list.
Despite her spacious office lined with awards of recognition, Lewandowski is very conscious of where the focus of her work is -- outside. "At the end of the day, you know you've done something good when you see kids smiling and playing in a park," she said.
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