Vol. 14, No. 14     July 12 - 25, 2001


A Norwood News Special Editorial

Time for a Plan to Restore Williamsbridge Oval Playground

A new exhibit at the Parks Department headquarters in Central Park, entitled "Greener Pastures: A History of Bronx Parks, 1888-2001," is a wonderful look back at the esteemed place parks once occupied in city government and civic life.

City planners who believed that parkland was integral to the health of the city and its residents had grand visions and big ideas. Not all of them were implemented but many were.

Creating a park in the place of the reservoir that was decommissioned in 1934 was an inspired decision. But planners had an even grander vision. Instead of the tunnel that now leads into the park from its southern entrance, planners had in mind a courtyard structure with semi-enclosed walkways above and below. A drawing of that plan is on display at the exhibit. Probably, the money ran out, but its existence is nevertheless instructive of public policy that valued public space as a key element of civic life in an otherwise brick, asphalt and concrete city.

But parks are at the bottom of the list of governmental priorities these days, and the Oval is a perfect example.

It is still a place, thankfully, where hundreds, if not thousands, of residents come every day to engage in a dizzying and dazzling array of recreational activities. On a recent afternoon, some girls played knock hockey on a board propped on top of a picnic table, while some other little kids laughed and danced in the spray showers. Nearby there was fresh colored chalk on the ground delineating a hopscotch grid. In the morning, a group of women practice Tai Chi on the tennis courts. People of all ages run or walk around the Oval's various levels of paths. Others play basketball, soccer, tennis. Kids climb all over the park's fine playgrounds. Some simply sit on a bench, enjoying the outdoors. The Oval is the gemstone set in the middle of Norwood, but the shine has long come off.

In spite of recent improvements, the park is suffering from tremendous neglect, as you can see from the photos on this page. The concrete footing for the perimeter fence is crumbling. It's not uncommon to see large chunks of rubble lying in the gutter. The stone walls and concrete curbs that border many of the areas where the park's greenery should be are falling apart and fading away. The park's entrances, which are in terrible shape and have no sidewalks are a danger to local children and are a disgrace to the role the Oval plays in the community and to its place in history; they repel rather than invite. Many of the hex blocks that comprise the paths are missing and replaced with ugly asphalt. The bald spots of earth throughout the Oval indicate that no thought is given to landscaping or even just the spreading of grass seed.

There have been capital improvements to the Oval over the years, including new playgrounds, a refurbished park house. A renovation of the tennis courts and the area behind it is in the works. Word is there's money in this year's budget for more rehab work, though we have yet to see details from the Parks Department. But those piecemeal capital improvements only begin to address the Oval's enormous needs. Bronx parks commissioner Bill Castro estimated in a recent Norwood News interview that at least $5 million would be necessary to restore the Oval to its proper state.

And sadly, capital improvements are only the first step. Maintaining the improvements will also be necessary, something the city foolishly ignores these days like a homeowner putting in a new rug without fixing the leaky roof. We hope that our new representatives in the City Council and in Borough Hall prioritize the Oval. Now is the time to bring the issue to the candidates for both offices who will be vying for our votes in the coming weeks and months.

Local residents and community organizations can press the issue with elected officials by coming up with a comprehensive plan for the Oval's restoration. Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation had success with that approach in drafting a plan for the exciting makeover under way in Poe Park. There's no reason why the same strategy can't be employed for the Oval.

It is important to note that the Oval is only one park in a city with 28,300 acres of parkland. Most parks need renovations and all need regular maintenance. The only way for this to happen is for the city to once again prioritize parks and open space. That's why a coalition of civic groups including the nonprofit Parks Council and the Bronx Coalition for Parks and Green Spaces have launched the Parks 2001 campaign, demanding that the city dedicate one percent of the budget (over the last 15 years, the budget for parks has been cut to less than half of one percent) to maintenance, programming, and safety.

The current fashion in some circles is that private citizens should come to the rescue of a cash-strapped city and should raise money among themselves to fill in the gaps.

This is silliness. First of all, what do we pay taxes for if not for city services? Second, why are parks any different from the police, sanitation, or transportation departments? We don't ask the citizenry to pass the hat in support of pothole filling, garbage pickup, or police protection.

We can, however, ask more people to get involved in the one percent campaign (visit www.parks2001.org or call 1-866-54PARKS) and in local efforts to bring the Oval back from the brink. To get involved in the the Bronx component of the campaign, e-mail bxspeakup@aol.com or call Rosanna at 367-3200, ext. 27. If you call us at 324-4998 or e-mail us at nornews@con2.com, we'll put you in touch with whatever community efforts we know about regarding the Oval and other local open spaces.

A letter to the editor in our last issue explained the importance of the Oval to our community better than we can. Annette Porter Soberal wrote: "The Oval Park is a well-used and well-loved park. Despite the refurbished playgrounds, there remains an air of shabbiness. The park needs landscaping, trees and bushes to be planted, grass to be reseeded. While such improvements may seem expensive, they will add to the vitality and stability of the surrounding neighborhood. The economics are basic: a stable neighborhood results in a secure tax base."

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