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.

Harlem River Park Artwork Designed by Local Artists and Kids

HARLEM — Tylik Mejia wasn’t that excited about an opportunity to work with the Creative Arts Workshops for Kids to design a mural to attract people to Harlem River Park.

“I declined at first because I said I’m not really an art person,” said Mejia, 15.

That’s when his mother, Kim Walton, 46, stepped in.

“I said you should try it because you just might like it. A few weeks later, he was coming home every day saying: ‘Ma you won’t believe this,” Walton said.

Mejia helped to design six banners that will hang on Fifth Avenue and beckon people to the park, and became so adept that he helped supervise his peers.

The banners, along with 15 etched steel plaques that will be installed near the water at Artist’s Cove at East 139th Street and Harlem River Drive, are part of an effort to beautify the park while creating a connection with the surrounding communities.

“The purpose of the banners is to act as an anchor to get people into the park,” said Richard Toussaint, a member of Community Board 11 who wrote the proposal for the park back in 1990.

The 20 acre park is being built in phases between the Harlem River and the Harlem River Drive from 125th to 145th streets.

Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation, which oversaw the project, said it’s part of an effort to make the park into a “relevant neighborhood asset.”

“We wanted to empower the community to express itself in the arts,” Lunke said.

The etched plaques, designed by artists such as Manuel Vega Jr., depict images representative of Harlem’s history and culture. Vega’s etching “Harlem River Ran-Kan-Kan” depicts Tito Puente. Another by Nora Mae Carmicheal called “Harlem’s Hellfighters,” depicts members of the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, the first African-American regiment to fight in World War I.

Harlem artist Misha McGlown designed a mixed media collage that shows a view from the park. It shows the state flower and rocks that represent the Harlem River.

“They have given so much thought to the ecosystem in the park,” McGlown said of her collage.

“The art brings an element of interest and exhibition quality to the park. It’s also a powerful learning tool,” she said.

The banners represent different elements of the park. One shows a fisherman and is based on a man who used to fish in the area before it officially became a park. Another represents some of the flowers found in the park. The young people involved in the project surveyed the area before deciding what elements to depict in the banners.

“It’s a very empowering experience for young people,” said Molaundo Jones, program director of Creative Arts Workshops for Kids. “They will see their work outside the park and think about the importance of what they did and how it helps the community. It reverberates in the rest of their lives.”

Mejia said he and his fellow banner creators had to learn not only about art and blending colors but about patience, working collaboratively with others and respect and self-respect.

“Once I got into the program, I thought to myself: ‘This art stuff is nice,'” said Mejia.

Now, he still wants to be an education lawyer but also sees possibilities as a graphic designer.

“It makes me feel that no matter what age, big or small, everyone can make a difference,” Mejia said.

Read more: http://www.dnainfo.com/20110516/harlem/local-artists-kids-design-banners-plaques-for-harlem-river-park#ixzz1MZDDtRM0