Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Continuing Plight of Charles Park

Residents, Local Officials Outraged Over Gateway Neglect

By Patricia Adams

More than two hundred people packed the auditorium at Our Lady of Grace in Howard Beach on Friday night, hoping to get some answers about the dilapidated conditions at Frank Charles Memorial Park.

Residents, civic leaders and elected officials gathered at the town hall meeting to hear details about $200,000 in federal funding designated to help resurface eroded tennis courts and cleanup deteriorating baseball fields.

Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica), National Park Service Superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area Barry Sullivan and Dorothy McCloskey, founder of the Friends of Charles Park, were all on hand to discuss the appropriation for the much needed park repairs.

But those in attendance were skeptical about the sincerity of the plan and charged that the funding is both insufficient and long overdue. Rep. Meeks told the crowd that as far as Charles Park is concerned, there has never been a desirable relationship between Gateway and the community. Meeks said he came to the realization that the park was not a good place for parents to bring their children years ago when he first visited the facility. Gateway countered with a promise to enter into a partnership with the community so that Charles Park would be re-established as a priority green space and not fall behind other projects.

Discussion about the money originally allocated by Meeks’ office—a total of $ 1million—was glossed over as the meeting moved onto a familiar reiteration of complaints lodged by residents and park goers. Tennis courts littered with fractured clamshells, broken concrete, faded lines and dangerously uneven surfaces make it near impossible for players to utilize the facility.

The other source of complaint is the condition of baseball fields which ideally would be used to host an overflow of games from nearby Ozone Howard Little League. “The problem with these fields is like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” said Joe M. whose two sons play at Ozone Howard. “They are overgrown, full of rocks and just plain dangerous.”

Additional problems at the baseball fields stem from the permits issued by Gateway for adult leagues that come from distant neighborhoods and who do nothing to help maintain the fields. Residents say the leagues use the fields, leaving litter behind, and often refuse to vacate when local kids leagues come in for scheduled games.

Lynne Kenny, longtime Howard Beach resident says that the conditions at the park are deplorable. “I am living here for over 40 years, and I am using the tennis courts for the last 20,” said Kenny. “It’s amazing that what should be such a beautiful park is just a disaster.” Playing on the courts is risky according to Kenny, noting that another regular took a bad spill on the court last Saturday.

Other players who use the park regularly echoed Kenny’s sentiment adding complaints about broken benches, litter all along the shoreline and throughout the park and bathrooms that are almost always locked and virtually unusable due to filthy conditions when they are open.

Frances Scarantino, founder of S.T.A.R.S Youth Program and community activist has been part of the fight to restore the park since 1996. “It’s extremely frustrating that Gateway has never worked with us to make this park the kind of facility that it could be.”

Scarantino secured a grant and held fundraisers in order to purchase equipment for a playground in Hamilton Beach that is a part of Charles Park more than nine years ago. Now she says everything the community worked so hard for is basically useless. “Because of the lack of maintenance by Gateway the playground has fallen into a state of complete disrepair and should be considered dangerous.”

Senator Joe Addabbo told The Forum his concerns lie in the fact that money that was allocated for repairs to the park has not been accounted for. “What needs to happen here is that Congressman Meeks needs to take a much stronger stand. A lot more work has to be done by his office to remedy this situation.”

Addabbo also maintains that Gateway needs to concentrate on administrative help for the park and that the federal government needs to make a serious financial commitment to provide much needed funding. “Charles Park needs be considered along the same lines as some of its more famous Gateway counterparts like Ellis Island and Yosemite,” said Addabbo. “We simply are not getting our fair share.”

The money referred to by Sen. Addabbo was a $1 million appropriation earmarked for Charles Park from Rep. Meeks several years ago. But according to Gateway spokesperson Jane Ahern, neither National Parks nor Congressman Meeks’ office was able to confirm the designation of the money for Charles Park and so it was never applied to park projects. According to Meeks’ office the line item went to Gateway, however it was not used there.

Now there is more than $2 million dollars in appropriations that have been applied for by Congressman Meeks’ office and neighborhood group, the Friends of Charles Park. The group has also asked Meeks to request an additional $1 million so that Gateway can establish a maintenance budget for the park. Decisions on the appropriations will not be made until October.

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