In 2001, Hakiem Yahmadi’s son, James, was shot and killed by a gang member on Willis Avenue, two blocks away from St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx. He was 30 years old.
Fifteen years later, Hakiem Yahmadi hopes to combat further gang violence in the Mott Haven neighborhood by making St. Mary’s Park a safer place. “There needs to be more lighting in the park,” Yahmadi said. With different gangs commanding different areas around St. Mary’s, the scarce light fixtures make traveling through the park dangerous at night, he said.
Yahmadi was one of 150 community members and city officials at a neighborhood meeting Tuesday night in Mott Haven that was organized by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The topic was how to spend $30 million allocated to improve the 35-acre park, the largest in the South Bronx. The renovation is part of the Anchor Parks Initiative, a $150 million city investment in five large parks, all greater than six acres. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the initiative in August.
“This is a big infusion of capital dollars from the Mayor’s office,” said Sarah Neilson, Washington Square park administrator for the parks department who was at the meeting. “We want to improve the park as close to alignment to community needs as we can.”
After a short presentation from the parks department on the current state of St. Mary’s, the participants joined one of 16 tables, each with two group discussion leaders from the parks department and other community groups such as Partnership for Parks and BronxWorks. After 40 minutes of discussions, each group presented their top priorities for how the $30 million should be spent.
Yahmadi’s request for more lighting in the park garnered applause and was repeated by several other groups.
Another concern that elicited cheers from the room came from the Rev. Francis Skelly of Immaculate Conception Church on Melrose Avenue and East 150th Street. “I really hope this park is for us,” Skelly said. “Thirty million makes me happy but also a little nervous. I really hope it’s for us. We don’t want to become the next East Harlem where people who were from there were moved out.”
Skelly was referring to new developments in East Harlem that fit the pattern of gentrification, including a Whole Foods scheduled to be opened in early 2017 and a new 23-story tower of condos.
Other suggestions included improved playgrounds, bathrooms and benches, an enclosed barbecue space and dedicated areas for sports.
“We never had a decent field to practice on in the Bronx,” said Floyd Loftin, 27. He grew up in the Bronx and once played in the South Bronx Chargers, a youth football team, before he became a coach for the Chargers. “There are bricks, rocks, potholes and sinkholes in the fields here.”
Nolvia Blanco, 45, a volunteer guidance counselor at New York University, also called for improved sports areas. “The running track needs to be updated because it’s basically just dirt now,” she said. “The baseball field also needs some work. You can’t really sit.”
The discussion leaders led with questions that ranged from the amount of time people spend at parks to which areas of the parks attract more female versus male visitors.
From mothers with infants on their laps to men in pressed suits, each table had a mix of community members. There was also a youth table in which children could also describe their ideas for the park by writing or drawing.
Andrew Penzi, the parks department’s team leader for the Bronx, said he was pleased with the turnout, especially on a rainy night. “This is the best and most well represented community meeting I’ve ever been to,” he said.
Neilson said the parks department will consider the community comments and come back to the neighborhood later in the winter to present the design.