BY TREY STRANGE
GREENPOINT — It can be tough to manage a park. Taking care of one requires maintenance, repairs and a whole lot of gardening and weeding. And opening a park can cost millions from both the government and private donations — take, for example, Williamsburg’s new Domino Park, which opened last June after an investment of $50 million by Two Trees, a DUMBO-native developer.
If it’s difficult to maintain just one park, as most conservancy projects do, then the work North Brooklyn Parks Alliance does might just be crazy. The nonprofit is the only one in the city that oversees an entire area of green spaces — all of the parks across the nearly five square miles of Greenpoint and Williamsburg — and raises funds to supplement city funding.
“It takes a lot,” said Katie Denny Horowitz, NBPA’s new executive director and a longtime Greenpoint resident. “The Parks Department is a large city agency, but the demands are too high for the resources in the agency.”
Since 2003, NBPA has raised private funds to manage the more than 100 parks and green spaces in North Brooklyn. Having begun as the Open Space Alliance in North Brooklyn, the group announced its rebrand last October at its Party for Parks gala, which raised more than $160,000.
The group’s mission mirrors those of other park conservancy organizations, which have a long history in New York City. Throughout the back half of the 1900s, communities around the city organized park committees to advocate for their park needs. In the ‘60s, Harlem resident Hilda Stokely founded the “Friends of Mt. Morris Park,” which set the foundation for what is now the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance. Along those lines, other organizations that formed became nonprofits and public-private partnerships in the following decades. In 1980, the Central Park Conservancy program began, and later that decade, the Prospect Park Alliance followed suit.
Today, the NBPA’s work managing multiple parks poses unique problems, which means Horowitz and her team have to stay flexible. This year, instead of buying repair equipment for any single park, they bought a trailer so that mechanic staff could travel from Greenpoint to Bushwick and back again, making stops along the way to work maintenance and keep the parks functioning.
The NBPA office sits right on Kent Avenue at the entrance to Bushwick Inlet Park — named after the sharp turn inward that the riverfront takes just north of the park. (Deceptively, it’s actually in Williamsburg.) This city-owned park is the newest addition to a row of waterfront spaces: State-run East River State Park, Grand Ferry Park, and Domino Park all feature great views of Manhattan across the river.
But Bushwick Inlet Park has a complicated recent history: It’s on the site of the old CitiStorage building, where a fire in 2015 destroyed the home and office of its owner, Norman Brodsky. Community members pleaded for the city to buy the property — Mayor Michael Bloomberg had promised to turn it into the park — but the mayor’s office and Brodsky couldn’t agree on a price. Finally, in late 2016, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, Brodsky sold the city the building for $160 million.
The park will expand to become the largest new space in north Brooklyn. At 25 acres, it will fall just short of taking the throne — McCarren Park will still be 10 acres larger, with its baseball diamonds, soccer field, exercise equipment and running track.
But the CitiStorage sale didn’t end the problems for Bushwick Inlet or the other waterfront parks. In 2005, the Bloomberg administration rezoned the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront, which had traditionally been an industrial area, for residential development.
But the area’s history of factories has had a residual effect — literally, in the soil, having spilled chemicals into the ground. Environment threats don’t just exist near the water; an early study by NBPA and El Puente, an environmental justice group, shows that areas of Williamsburg’s South Side around the BQE might be getting polluted and asthma-inducing air from the traffic below.
“The community here is very unique,” Horowitz said. “It’s very well-versed in environmental issues, because they’re not these faraway concepts — they affect our everyday lives.”