In the mid-to-late 1990s, the advocates for Morningside Park had nearly disappeared. But efforts by one community group in the last year and a half have helped make the land a cleaner, greener, safer environment and a new destination point for thousands of area residents.
Friends of Morningside Park, Inc., is a volunteer community-based coalition whose aim is to "mobilize neighborhood residents, institutions and resources for the improvement of our park and the protection of its natural habitats; to promote community events and activities that bring the surrounding neighborhoods together, and to advocate on behalf of Morningside Park."
The Friends have been achieving many of their goals for the park, which runs from 110th Street to 123rd Street (bordered on the west by Morningside Drive and on the east by Morningside Avenue). In 2001, the organization will produce 14 major events (the most in the park's 106-year history), including an Earth Day celebration, Easter egg hunt, jazz/gospel lunchtime concerts, Double Dutch tournament and Halloween festival. The most popular day of the year by far is September's "Common Ground." Last fall, more than 3,000 people attended the daylong festival, which included displays from neighborhood vendors and social service groups as well as games for children and live entertainment.
"This year will be even bigger," says Doug Robinson, president of the Friends. "Our goal is to let people know that the park is safe. All they have to do is come down and see how it has changed."
In recent years, the park was assumed by many to be a dangerous and uninviting place to sit on a bench or walk a dog. The Friends set out to dispel those fears. Members of the group met with officers from the 26th Precinct to discuss increasing police presence in the park. Overgrowth was cut back to increase visibility and light penetration. Gardens were replanted, benches painted, garbage cleaned, signs erected, graffiti removed, weeds pulled and broken paths re-paved.
"This is what New York is all about," says M.E. Fredrick, the Friends' assistant treasurer. "It's not just a city thing, but a community thing too. Each person has to care. If everyone does a little, things add up."
Eventually, the Friends focused on getting residents to come and see the park's progress, so community outreach became a top priority. The Friends' mailing list has grown to more than 700 names and their e-mail list expands almost daily. Monthly meetings provide a forum for all local residents to voice a concern or idea and are often attended by members of the 26th Precinct, including Deputy Inspector Robert Lucena.
Elected officials in the community are taking notice. "Much credit should go to Doug Robinson for his aggressive, proactive and creative efforts," says Bill Perkins, city councilman for District 9, which includes Morningside Park. "He has made special efforts to create a sense of inclusiveness in terms of membership and input. Meetings are more accessible, more inviting."
Perkins says the Friends' effort helps him when seeking community funding from the city. "The role the Friends play in advocating, volunteering and mobilizing becomes part of the arsenal of weapons that elected officials like myself can use," he says. "They represent the constituency that justifies our advocacy."
The Friends were founded in 1981 by Thomas Kiel, CC'82, who continued to volunteer alongside other members even after leaving the neighborhood to practice medicine in Staten Island. Under the leadership of Kiel, the Friends were instrumental in launching fundraising programs, organizing park events and making horticultural and structural improvements.
Kiel was tragically killed in a trail bike accident while touring Australia in 1996. The loss was a great blow to park volunteers and enthusiasts. Without central leadership, membership in the Friends dissipated and the group was unable to operate effectively. As the organization lay dormant for several years, the park suffered, losing its sense of community and falling into physical disarray.
Between 1998 and '99, the Morningside Area Alliance (MAA) was able to secure two much-needed $35,000 grants for the park from the Kaplan Foundation. A portion of the money from the first grant was used to employ a service called Projects for Public Space, which assessed the park's needs. "They outlined what had to be done—from maintaining the bathrooms to addressing all the safety issues," says Robinson. The second grant went exclusively towards employing a full-time communications outreach coordinator to help re-establish and restructure the Friends.
MAA also used a part of the initial $35,000 grant to produce the third annual "Common Ground" event in the fall of 1999. It was there that several community members expressed interest in attending the first meeting of the new Friends organization. By January 2000, a group of residents were gathering regularly, and an updated administrative system had been put into place. Officer elections were held and Robinson assumed the presidency. Nearly five years after Kiel's death, the Friends were operational again, ready to pick up where Kiel left off.
Narciso Cruz, a friends volunteer, believes the park plays a unique role in bringing different groups of people together. "The park has something special," says Cruz. "There's always a good spirit there. Everybody gets along."
Robinson notes that through working with Friends, the true meaning of community is revealed. "The big thing is getting to know people," he says. "That's a wonderful thing. You get a sense that you're doing this for a greater cause."
Morningside Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux (the same team famous for creating Central Park's renowned landscape), was completed in 1895. The park houses several playgrounds, softball fields, basketball courts, a pond, waterfall, and the Dr. Thomas Kiel Arboretum.
Columbia staff and faculty are encouraged to work with the Friends in their pursuit to improve the park. "We will match the contribution of those who join the group as a Friend [$5], Good Friend [$15] or Best Friend [$50]," says Larry Dais, assistant vice president for public affairs and director of community affairs at Columbia. "Our goal has always been to promote greater community interest and concern."
Anyone interested in joining the Friends of Morningside Park or making a contribution to their cause should call 212-749-1570.