Where’s the Love? Not at St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx

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St. Mary’s Park in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx is the community’s biggest stretch of green space. (Photo: Jenna O’Donnell)

By Jenna O’Donnell

Baseball bleachers without seats. Cracked tennis courts with no net. This is how New York State Senator Daniel Squadron described the condition of St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx in a recent New York Times op-ed. Contrasting the poor condition of St. Mary’s with the perfection of Central Park, he highlighted the inequity of New York City’s parks—a fresh issue for his campaign platform and one that echoes the concerns of Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

“The parks that find it hardest to attract support are in communities that need the open space the most,” Squadron wrote.

Even with the support of a state senator and a new mayor elected on a platform of improving the lives of all New Yorkers, residents of Mott Haven are skeptical that improvements to the park will ever be made.

“People say they’ll do stuff and they don’t really do it.” Michael Olivo, 23, said. As Olivo spoke, he pushed his 5-year old daughter on the same set of swings he played on as a child.

St. Mary’s Park, at just over 35 acres, is the biggest stretch of green space in Mott Haven.  In a community with less than an acre of parkland per 1,000 residents, the park is a popular spot for families from surrounding neighborhoods. Most of the families who come to St. Mary’s are Hispanic. About 28,000 children live in the district that the park serves, according to the most recent census data. The median household income in the neighborhoods surrounding St. Mary’s falls just under $25,000 per year.

About a half dozen parents who visited the park on a recent sunny weekday said despite the scarcity of parkland and the popularity of St. Mary’s, its playgrounds are run-down and too small for the amount of use they get. Some of the playgrounds’ equipment is outdated and dangerous, the parents added.

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The playground in St. Mary’s Park has not been updated for decades. The equipment is worn and sometimes dangerous. (Photo: Jenna O’Donnell)

Twenty-three year-old Michael Olivo said he remembered daily visits to St. Mary’s South during his childhood. Now he brings his own two children there. His 2-year-old son ran into the metal slide a few months ago and had to get six stitches on his head.

“I never had a problem with the park until my son cracked his head open,” he said. “If they had a plastic slide that would never have happened.”

The three playgrounds in St. Mary’s are busiest in the summer months, according to Mott Haven mom Mariela Hernandez, but she brings her youngest, Allison, 7, to play here whenever the weather is nice.  Other playgrounds are closer to Hernandez’s home on Courtland Avenue, but she doesn’t like their proximity to some of the surrounding housing projects.

“When school gets out, everyone comes here,” Hernandez said. “Too many children, not enough places to play.”

The playground has two aging jungle gyms, separated by a fenced-in row of swings.  The rusting steel jungle gyms, painted yellow, red and green, have been there for as long as some residents can remember.

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Despite the decay, St. Mary’s playground is the most popular in the neighborhood. Parents feel its location is safer than some other playgrounds but wish it were in better condition. (Photo: Jenna O’Donnell)

A playground in the north of the park shows signs of wear. To the east, crumbling concrete bleachers devoid of seats surround a dilapidated ball field.

“When you walk through the park you see decades of neglect,” said Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates, a non-profit watchdog of public parks.  “It’s really sad because it’s a heavily used park and a great resource.”

As the Bronx parks system commemorates its 125th year in 2013, park advocates say they hope to improve Mott Haven parks with federal money. A New Yorkers For Parks spokesman said the group is working on an assessment of the area while the Trust for Public Land has plans for two new playgrounds at local schools in 2014.

Reagan Higgs moved to Mott Haven with her two children a couple of years ago. She said the playgrounds were significantly smaller than those they had visited in Park Slope.

“Coming from Brooklyn, it’s a different kind of experience,” she said, then shrugged. “It is what it is.”

Part of the problem is that local parents set their expectations too low, Mariela Hernandez said. She citec apathy as a big reason that the local playgrounds have not been expanded or updated over the years.

“Too many people here just say ‘It’s fine’,” Hernandez said. “When the parents complain, things get better.”

Politicians appear to think differently. If Senator Squadron and Mayor-elect de Blasio can create enough political will to address inequity in the park system, parents in Mott Haven may be surprised by improvements to St. Mary’s in the coming years.