When Sally Greenspan wants to take young grandchildren to the park, there aren’t many convenient options near her home east of 7th Avenue in Chelsea. She either has to head to the far west side of the neighborhood or go to the crowded Union or Madison Square parks – which aren’t easy treks for tots.
“With their little legs it takes them half an hour, and then they’re exhausted,” she says. “And going home is worse!”
Greenspan is one of many Chelsea residents who are clamoring for more green, community spaces. Although the neighborhood is known for the High Line Park, some think it’s too touristy to satisfy Chelsea’s park void, particularly because it is not family-friendly. While some locals think that the maintenance of existing parks should be prioritized, park advocates are looking for creative ways to find new spaces for the community to gather, especially in East Chelsea, where parks are particularly lacking.
Community District 4, comprised of Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, has the lowest amount of open space in New York City. Its 100,000 residents live on 700 acres, only 2 percent of which is park space. In its needs statement for fiscal year 2012, the board emphasized the need for the development of more waterfront parks, the maintenance of inland parks and the completion of the third section of the High Line.
But many Chelsea residents are uncertain whether the High Line Park is best serving the community. The renovation of the elevated freight lines has exceeded expectations aesthetically, and the park has boosted tourism and sparked a business boom in West Chelsea. But, the crowds prevent residents from taking full advantage, and because the park is mostly a walkway, there is little room for play.
“It’s not considered a community park,” says Lesley Doyel, who lives on 20th Street near the High Line. “It’s a tourist destination.”
Doyel is the co-president of Save Chelsea, a neighborhood association dedicated to preserving Chelsea’s history. Although she praises the repurposing of the abandoned tracks, she also sees it as a “Pandora’s Box.” For her, the High Line is yet another instigator of excessive commercial and residential development, as new construction has increased in West Chelsea since the High Line was renovated.
The crowds have also been unexpected for James Jasper, a member of Community Board 4 who was initially a proponent of the High Line Park. He wrote letters in favor of the park to city officials, but could never have imagined how many tourists it would attract.
“People in the neighborhood almost never go up there,” he says. “It’s too much of a hassle.”
Also, the High Line is being maintained at the expense of other parks, says Miguel Acevedo, president of the tenant association at Fulton House, one of the neighborhood’s housing projects.
“All of the money is going to the High Line, and the city is forgetting about other parks,” he says.
Instead, Acevedo would like to see some money allocated to parks in need of maintenance, like Kelly Park on 17th Street and Clark Park on 22nd Street. Both are especially in need of bathrooms, he says.
But many in the Chelsea community think that new parks should be built from scratch. There hasn’t been a new playground built in Chelsea since 1968. Since then, most parks have been built near the water, making it difficult for East Chelsea residents to access, or, like the High Line, are not family-friendly.
“It’s a wonderful promenade, but it isn’t a playground,” says Matt Weiss of the High Line.
Weiss has spearheaded a grassroots campaign to build a park on 20th Street between 6th and 7th avenues in an empty lot that the city has allocated for affordable housing. Since last year, the 20th Street Park campaign has grown to more than 3,000 supporters, and organizers are working with officials to find alternative housing space so the “pocket park” can be developed.
“The neighborhood woke up and said that this is a really important issue,” says Weiss. “We want a park that seniors, young families, and the disabled can all access and enjoy. We want to build a community.”
As the father of a 2-year-old son, Weiss emphasizes convenience and crowd-control. “We don’t think in this day and age, in such a residential community, it’s right for our kids to have to take a number and wait for a swing,” he says.
“This area of Chelsea is so underserved,” says Dawn Eig, a Chelsea mother of two. “The 20th Street Park could be a refuge from the crowd and noise of the city – a place to sit and read a book, while your kid kicks a ball around.”
Other Chelsea residents see the solution in micro-parks – small, street-side spaces, only 100- to 300-square-feet, consisting of a community garden and seating. The community group Park Chelsea partially opened its prototype this summer, Thumbelina Park and Community Garden, on 25th Street and 8th Avenue. It is located on one of the islands that the Department of Transportation built when creating the 8th Avenue bike lane.
The micro-parks could be “permission spaces” where people won’t be afraid to strike up a conversation, says Arnold Bob, also known as “Ranger Bob,” the unofficial park commissioner of Park Chelsea. And, because the residents of each block would maintain their own park, they can be tailored to the users’ needs – providing convenient, adequate outdoor seating. While the Department of Transportation provided the islands, neighbors will fund and care for the plantings, Bob says.
“Simply saying we need more open space is not the answer,” says Bob. “The goal of Park Chelsea is to build community.”