Heirs of Harlem Hero Call for Street, Pool Renaming

Madlyn Stokely, shown with her daughter Rochelle Hill, lives on West 123rd Street in the brownstone where her mother, activist Hilda Stokely, lived. (Photo by Andres David Lopez)

Madlyn Stokely, shown with her daughter Rochelle Hill, lives on West 123rd Street in the brownstone where her mother, activist Hilda Stokely, lived. (Photo by Andres David Lopez)

When Hilda Stokely decided her son should have skis, nothing got in her way. She went out and bought a pair, but she didn’t send him to Aspen or Vail. Instead, she grabbed a shovel and built her own slope on a hill in Central Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park.

“I was the only black kid in Harlem who had skis,” said Bill Stokely Jr., now 57.

“She would make a decision about what she felt her family should have and she went about doing that,” said his sister, Madlyn Stokely. “She always taught us that we had a right to be whoever we wanted to be.”

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Hamilton Heights Residents Work to Reclaim Montefiore Park

Michael Palma and Barbara Nikonorow, co-leaders of the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association, say they want the pending park redesign to make the area more useful to the community. (DNAinfo/Jeff Mays)

HARLEM — During the day Montefiore Park, located next to the 137th Street subway stop on Broadway, is mostly used a corridor for City College students heading to campus. At night, the park and dimly lit side street becomes a stomping grounds for the homeless, marijuana smokers, beer-drinkers and their waste.

“The smell of urination is so powerful that it is not serving the community as a park, a place of peaceable enjoyment for people that want to enjoy nature,” said Barbara Nikonorow, one of the leaders of the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association.

All of the grass is surrounded by gates and senior citizens bring their own chairs to the park.

But the Hamilton Heights park wasn’t always an afterthought. The park was created in 1906 and named after Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, a wealthy Italian-Jewish businessman turned Jewish advocate. Before the city removed all the benches and put gates around the grass to deter drug activity, old-timers remember people playing dominoes at the park and parents with kids in tow chatting there.

“It was an important part of daily life before the whole neighborhood went into a state of disrepair and depression with the onslaught of the crack epidemic,” said Micheal Palma, a co-leader of the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association, which his mother founded.

“Now, it’s like a zoo for grass. You can look at the grass from behind the gates but you can’t use or touch it,” he said.

But in 2008, the park, bounded by Broadway and Hamilton Place from West 136th to West 138th Streets, was placed in the Department of Transportation’s Plaza Program and designated for a redesign. By closing Hamilton Place from 136th to 138th streets, the size of the park will be doubled.

The $6.4 million project is scheduled to begin construction in 2014 and be completed in 2015.

In advance of the changes, the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association is hosting a series of visioning workshops.

Starting Saturday, they will host events where Hamilton Place is closed to give the public a sense of the change to come. A monthly cleanup session will be combined with turning Hamilton Place into a play street. A farmer’s market launched at the park in July and runs every Tuesday through to November.

Palma said the group is being proactive in an effort to make sure their wishes for redesigning the park are incorporated. Heritage Health and Housing, the Harlem Community Development Corporation and City College’s Architectural Center are also partners in the effort.

“What we are trying to do is do is demonstrate to the DOT and Parks Department that this is a big deal to the community. We have definititive ideas. We don’t want to see speckled sand and some tables and then say: ‘We are finished.’ We want to totally redesign the park,” Palma said.

At a meeting Wednesday, area residents and business owners endorsed the idea of closing the two block stretch of Hamilton Place twice per week, said Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation.

Residents said they want to see festivals return to the park, along with street games such as dominoes and chess tables. They also want the park to be used for fitness, and also for food vendors and vegetable sellers to occupy the expanded space.

Palma also said they wanted more social services directed to help some of the homeless and drug-using population that currently occupies the area.

“We want to make it more of a community living room rather than a passageway for students going to City College. We want it to be a place where the community can engage one another,” said Lunke.

Other benefits would include a smoother traffic pattern along Broadway and Hamilton Place, which is closed off after 138th Street because the rest of the short street is one-way running south.

The park has the potential to be an economic draw for the area, said Nikonorow. It is close to a transportion hub and young families are moving to the neighborhood. The senior population and City College and public school students are natural park users.
“It’s strange that no one thought until recently that the best way to keep this park from drug dealers is to make it a really useful place,” said Palma.

East Harlem Kids Reclaim Trash-Strewn Lot

EAST HARLEM — The empty lot next to P.S. 121 in East Harlem was a mess.

Trash littered the ground and attracted rats. Old furniture and rotting food overflowed from the dumpsters of an adjacent lot used by the New York City Housing Authority to hold trash from Washington Houses.

“[The students] had to walk past a garbage strewn lot to get into the building and that is simply not the environment we wanted [them] to see,” said Eve Colavito, principal of Harlem RBI’s Dream Charter School which shares space at P.S. 121.

Fed up, Rose Gelrod, Dream Charter School’s wellness specialist, called NYCHA and scored an appointment with Housing Commissioner Margarita Lopez.

Soon a plan was hatched to beautify the area at East 103rd Street and Second Avenue, including a Parks Department playground next to the lot.

On Friday, Arbor Day, dozens of kids from Dream Charter School, mostly kindergarteners and first graders, gathered with Lopez and planted wildflower seeds, while others planted at the base of the playground’s trees.

“We have to be nice to Mother Earth,” Lopez told a group of kindergarten students before they dug into the mulch. “We’ve been doing bad things and the earth is sad. It’s important for us to take care of the earth.”

The kids dug into the fresh mulch and then sprinkled the seeds.

At the playground, they used spades to plant seedlings, screaming when they discovered a worm and asking how soon the plants would grow.

“I got to dig a hole,” said Jah-Torah Harris, 6, a kindergartner at the school. “I like that we can make flowers.”

“The earth isn’t sad anymore,” said a kindergarten as he pushed dirt on top of the seeds he just planted.

Harlem RBI Executive Director Richard Berlin liked that the kids learned they could have an impact on their environment.

“They live in a big city where they may not have as much chance to interact with nature,” said Berlin. “Not only are they interacting with nature, they are beautifying their neighborhood.”

Lopez said the lot remained filthy due to a lack of communication between NYCHA, the Parks Department and the Department of Education.

NYCHA trucks overflowed with trash and would often leave garbage behind. Because three city agencies all shared property in close proximity, no one seemed to know who was responsible for what.

“Although we are responsible for housing, and another agency was taking care of the parks and another providing education, we weren’t going to accomplish anything unless we resolved to work together,” said Lopez. “My responsibility is also your responsibility.”

Once all three groups agreed there needed to be change earlier this year, a plan came into place quickly.

The sanitation department donated the mulch and tools, NYCHA and sanitation department workers cleaned the lot while the parks department helped choose appropriate plants. The transformation took 70 hours of work.

“I’ve never seen this level of cooperation between government,” said Gelrod. “This area is now absolutely immaculate.”

The kids at the school will help to maintain the plantings on the once trash-strewn lot, she said.

Norma Stephenson, a parks department district supervisor, said it’s important for the kids to take ownership.

“They learn how important it is to keep things nice and contribute to their community,” she said.

Lopez said the previous condition of the lot set a “horrible example” for area residents that she hopes was rectified with the planting.

“Them doing the work means it is important. They own it and will pass it to future generations,” said Gelrod. “We are not done. We are just getting started.”

Read more: http://www.dnainfo.com/20110429/harlem/east-harlem-kids-reclaim-trashstrewn-lot#ixzz1L1Hp6vUa