Understanding Community Identity Through Park Design and Stewardship
A park clean-up unveils the values, behaviors, and potential of a community
Volunteering at a local park provides a unique opportunity to see a community from a more intimate point of view. A park’s overall design, the activities offered, the special events that take place, the level of involvement by the public in its design and upkeep… these characteristics point towards the social health of a community and reveals its values and behaviors.
I volunteered to take part in a Saturday clean-up at Tompkins Square Park, a 10.5 acre park in the Alphabet City area of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was supporting the Friends of Tompkins Square Park – a hyper-local community organization dedicated to enhancing the beauty, health, and safety of the park.
Formed a few decades ago, the group has stepped up their involvement since the COVID pandemic because NYC Parks and Recreation has faced maintenance staff shortages. The residents around the park noticed the park was falling into disrepair and saw an uptick in drug use and homelessness. Friends of Tompkins Square Park increased its involvement and oversight of the park to address these issues and provide a safe, healthy greenspace.
My responsibility for the shift that Saturday was to pick up trash anywhere on the park grounds (such as in the various flower beds and playgrounds). Other groups of volunteers helped plant flowers and mulch around the trees.
The Park as a Reflection of Community:
Examining a park’s design reveals what’s important to a community’s sense of identity – their habits, their community values, and their social structure. It also provides a peek into the future they wish to build together.
If you think about a local park near you – what could its design reveal about your community and its values? For example – How does the design impact who uses the park? Is it designed for diversity of use? Is it inclusive so all people have access to its benefits? How do people gather and interact there? What types of events are held there? How easy is it to get to and use the park?
Tompkins Square Park has a central green lawn area surrounded by winding paths lined with long benches under sun-dappled canopies of a wide variety of trees. The park includes a dog run, 3 children’s playgrounds, chess tables, ping pong tables, a handball court, and a bicycle/skateboard area. Various flower beds provide an oasis of color.
On this Saturday, there was a children’s educational program underway – one of many workshops and events that were scheduled in the park throughout the year, including a weekly greenmarket and live music shows, among many other activities.
Tompkins Square is designed for family and individual use across a wide variety of preferred activities. It is designed as a central hub for community interaction and for use as part of a healthy lifestyle. It reflects these values of the local community and is a vibrant, healthy, well-maintained green space.
Parks Reflect Current Societal Values and Needs:
During my volunteer shift I learned about the rich history of the park and could see how the design of the park evolved based on the needs and values of the surrounding community.
In the late 1840s, as over 600,000 immigrants and their families came to live in NYC, the wealthy single-family homes around and near Tompkins Square Park were replaced and/or repurposed into multiple subdivided tenement apartments to house an influx of poor immigrants.
The mostly Irish immigrants at that time were typically young, single, second-class citizens with limited education. They met, married and built families in the Lower East Side and typically worked on the nearby shipbuilding docks.
Densely packed into overcrowded apartments (it was not unusual for up to 5 families – about 20 people – to share one room that measured 12 ft x 12 ft) that lacked light, ventilation, plumbing and sanitation, this hard-working community used the park as a way to have some privacy from family and access a bit of open air. It was also an extension of their homes – livestock such as pigs roamed freely.
Churches popped up around and near the park and soup kitchens set up stations in the park to help feed the poor masses.
Only a few decades later the neighborhood would change drastically, and the park would change too. At the end of the 1800’s, there was a huge influx of German immigrants moving into the neighborhood. Coming mostly as families, they tended to have had some schooling and brought with them their culture, including a long history of the master-journeyman trades relationship (guilds). They brought different skill sets from earlier immigrants and had different ideas about how they wanted their neighborhood to function.
Slaughterhouses, factories, beer gardens, and markets opened. Instead of working at the docks, the community was full of tailors, bakers, cabinet makers and other trades, changing the experience of daily life. These families wanted the park to reflect their values and desired experiences. They formed a community association and petitioned the City. The newly established Department of Parks (1873) revamped the entire park, adding over 450 trees, 2 fountains, benches, a variety of plants and walking paths and 160 gas lamps. The NY Public Library opened a branch along the park in 1887. In 1894 the park became the first NYC park to house a children’s playground. The park had evolved to reflect the values of the community.
Friends of Tompkins Square Park is an example of active stewardship by the community. The group actively engages with various local schools, community groups, and non-profit organizations in their outreach, to encourage active stewardship of the park within the community. They hold regular clean-up days, including most Saturdays, and involve the community in planning local events and activities.
The group is mentored by the City Parks Foundation and works closely with the NY Department of Parks and Recreation, who is ultimately responsible for the park (and over 1,700 other parks throughout NYC).
That Saturday we picked up several bags of trash from the park.
The best part of the day was speaking with the park visitors!
One elderly patron of the park, who was feeding the pigeons when I stopped to chat, spoke about the evolution of the park. She described the park back in the 1980s when it was very different.
Dark Days for the Neighborhood Meant Dark Days for the Park
Going into the 1980s the park was in trouble. The neighborhood’s social structure had changed since the 1960s. Industries and businesses closed or moved out of the area and the neighborhood deteriorated. By the 1980s most buildings in the area were damaged. Landlords lost money as buildings went vacant and so they abandoned them, sometimes setting them on fire to collect insurance money. The homes and buildings on Avenues A and B (which face Tompkins Square Park) were burned out, boarded up and full of junkies. Graffiti was everywhere. Juvenile crime, gang violence and drug use kept people from using the park and it became a haven for homeless squatters, tent cities, gang activity, and drug use/sale.
The community was unhealthy and so was the park.
On the outskirts of the neighborhood, however, a transition was happening. Gentrification was slowly making its way around the edges of the Lower East Side.
The City wanted to step in and take the Park over, instituting a curfew and removing all the homeless and cleaning up the park. They hoped to redevelop the area and encourage a revival. Local resident groups were concerned about encroaching gentrification, and the skyrocketing housing/rent prices it would bring. They were also worried about the poor treatment of the homeless (they wanted them relocated not just removed).
There were protests and rallies in and around the park. But in August 1988, riot police moved in and cleared the homeless camps entirely. By force. Innocent bystanders were clubbed with police riot sticks. Journalists were kicked and arrested. The homeless were beaten and arrested. The next day bulldozers came in and razed everything in the park.
It was an important moment for the neighborhood. The entire event was caught on camera and video and was reported on the news, leading to further protests and rallies against the police. In the end, the City did take over the park. Soon after, it closed the park for two years while it was improved and revitalized. During that time gentrification did come to the neighborhood, changing the community as predicted.
What parks can tell us about the future of a community:
Today, Alphabet City and Tompkins Square Park are in the midst of change again. Lower crime rates and higher rents continue to take root. Some buildings have been revamped and others have been torn down and new condo and apartment buildings have been built in their place. Over the past decades immigrants were replaced by artists, poets and musicians, who in turn are now being replaced by today’s young professionals and their families. The park is once again changing to reflect the needs of the community.
Friends of Tompkins Square Park drives active community involvement in the care and future design of the park (active stewardship). It focuses on a shared responsibility for the health of the park. The group is looking to attract a larger, more diverse, membership to ensure both the group, and the park, are resilient and adaptable for the long-term. They are working to bring in artists, writers, students, skaters and musicians from around the world to expand the unique offerings of the park.
They are also working to promote conservation and a love of nature through publishing tree and foliage guides and holding a variety of workshops and events (bird-watching, insect-observing, etc.) for people of all ages. They are working with the park to host a variety of educational programs for students and children in an effort to strengthen next-generation passion for a healthy park.
These actions reflect the power of the future potential of the community and their values of conservation, shared responsibility and a desire for a permanent healthy greenspace.
It will be interesting to see how this park, and other public parks across the Nation, evolve in the years to come. What is “standard” for a park today may be completely different tomorrow as communities evolve. What does that reveal about us? Our beliefs? Our values? Our dreams?
When I registered to participate in their Saturday clean-up, I was excited to get to know a park I had not seen before. I was also looking forward to spending time in an urban green space. I did not realize how much I would learn about the building of a community and the expression of their values and passions.
I don’t think I’ll ever experience a park in quite the same way again. I’ll always be looking at the design, upkeep, and use of the park to see what they uncover about the values, behaviors and dreams of the community that supports it.
How to Get Involved in Your Favorite Park:
- Have a favorite park near you? Do a Google search to see if there is an active community organization and get involved. It’s easy to join a park clean-up or to set one up yourself. Here is a great article by Kathryn Kellogg from her “Going Zero Waste” website (Homepage – Going Zero Waste) with step-by-step instructions on organizing your own community park clean-up: How to Host a Community Clean Up! – Going Zero Waste
- Interested in getting to know the flora and fauna of your local park better? The Seek App by iNaturalist (by National Geographic and California Academy of Sciences) lets you snap a photo of any plant,animal, or insect on you phone, and it identifies it for you. You can earn badges and points and there’s no registration required to use the app. Check out: Seek by iNaturalist · iNaturalist
- Interested in learning more about the Friends of Tompkins Square Park, or in helping support their cause? Check out their site here: City Parks | Friends Of Tompkins Square Park | New York
- Looking for some family fun ideas to explore a park near you? Try my Park Bingo activity here:
I hope you enjoyed the journey this week! Thank you for coming along.
Do you have a favorite local park? Let me know which one and why in the comments!
XO – Penny
Resources and Research:
Unger, C. (2022, October 19). When Gentrification Hit the Lower East Side: There Goes the Neighborhood. http://www.Curbed.com. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from https://www.curbed.com/article/lower-east-side-east-village-nyc-gentrification.html
O’Sullivan, N. (2013, March 23). Scary tales of New York: Life in the Irish Slums. http://www.irishtimes.com. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/scary-tales-of-new-york-life-in-the-irish-slums-1.1335816#:~:text=Just%20under%20500%2C000%20people%2C%20more%20than%20half%20the,immigrant%20group%20in%20the%20US%20at%20the%20time.
Moses, R. (n.d.). Kleindeutschland: Little Germany in the Lower East Side: Development of Kleindeutschland or Little Germany. http://www.lespi-nyc.org. https://lespi-nyc.org/kleindeutschland-little-germany-in-the-lower-east-side/
Nigro, C. (2018, June 7). Tenement Homes: The Outsized Legacy of New York’s Notoriously Cramped Apartments. http://www.nypl.org. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2018/06/07/tenement-homes-new-york-history-cramped-apartments
Van Horn, L. (n.d.). A History of Tompkins Square Park. LESPI-nyc.org. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from https://lespi-nyc.org/a-history-of-tompkins-square-park/