This story was originally published by Curbed before it joined New York Magazine. You can visit the Curbed archive at archive.curbed.com to read all stories published before October 2020.
Hi, do you have five minutes today to help clean the parkway?” asks Roxanne Delgado, armed with mint-colored garbage bags and a clawlike metal trash-grabber, of a couple and their three young children. They agreed and were soon plucking cigarette butts, plastic cups, and candy wrappers.
Delgado, an out-of-work accountant and the founder of Friends of Pelham Parkway, has repeated some version of that line countless times since July, when park usage peaked in the midst of the pandemic and so too the amount of garbage littering this and other green spaces across the city, while the budget for city support has been drastically cut. It’s people like Delgado who are left to literally pick up where the city is not.
Pelham Parkway, which runs 2.5 miles between Bronx Park and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, might sound like a glorified median. In reality, it’s a 109-acre park in its own right, part of an early-20th-century greenway, with sloping meadows shaded by American elm trees and dirt paths that are well worn from bikers, joggers, and residents just out for a stroll. It’s a welcome swath of green for adjacent neighborhoods Allerton (to its north) and Morris Park (to its south), but all that space can hold a lot of trash, and Delgado is just one person. Still, she and her impromptu volunteers have made a dent in combating the scourge of pizza boxes, red Solo cups, and balled-up tissues that clutter the parkway. It’s time-consuming work that Delgado isn’t getting paid for, but without it, she said the parkway “would be back to a junkyard in no time.”
On the weekday evening Delgado recruited volunteers, the parkway was comfortably populated with young families sprawled out on bedsheets and older men playing dominoes at stone tables. But it’s a different story on most weekends. “There are days when you can barely see the grass because there are so many people out, seriously,” said Delgado. “After the budget cuts, it was devastating because we had no one picking up trash, no one emptying bins. Basically, now, it’s either we let the parkway deteriorate or the community steps up and cares for it. So we decided to step up.”
Because of the pandemic, the parks system cut $84 million from its budget, which paid for 1,700 seasonal workers that typically care for our parks each summer. Without those workers, that means there is nearly half the amount of staff cleaning these spaces than during the same time last year. The effects are clear: overflowing garbage cans, mounds of charcoal in tree pits, and overgrown grass peppered with all types of litter.
It isn’t just the jewels of the parks system that are being inundated with trash; it’s every scrap of public outdoor space, from plazas to promenades to parkways. But the budget cuts have forced a maintenance hierarchy for city parks, with playgrounds and barbecue spots at the top. The sort of nontraditional green spaces, like the parkway — which may be less trafficked but are by no means less important to communities — have been pushed to the bottom of the list when it comes to upkeep. Up to 500 Parks Department sites might go an entire week without a visit from a parks worker, making volunteers the last line of defense for spaces like Pelham Parkway.
To encourage New Yorkers to take better care of their parks, the city has launched a new anti-trash campaign with a simple message: “Show your park some love, New York. Put trash in a bag or can — or take it with you.” Posters with the slogan have been plastered across the city. Meanwhile, Parks Department workers are also continuing to hand out garbage bags and place “trash corrals” near picnic and barbecue areas. “We thank New Yorkers for caring for their favorite park spaces and encourage all parkgoers to do their part,” said Megan Moriarty, a Parks Department spokesperson.
But without city funds, our parks could permanently deteriorate at a time when they’ve proved essential. “Volunteers don’t replace staff — they just don’t,” said Heather Lubov, executive director of the City Parks Foundation. “Unless New Yorkers change their behavior, we’re seeing just the tip of the iceberg of what could happen to parks if they are not funded to the level that they need to be.”
In light of the budget cuts, the foundation initiated the NYC Green Relief & Recovery Fund, which has doled out $3 million in grants to parks groups, in amounts anywhere from $500 to $100,000, to help keep green spaces usable. Adam Ganser, the executive director of advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, noted that another way to chip away at the budget gap is to unlock frozen City Council capital funds that have already been earmarked for parks projects. Those funds would not only help upkeep parks but put New Yorkers to work, he said. Without getting creative in how the city meets the dire need of parks maintenance, spaces that have recently become a home away from home for New Yorkers will be overwhelmed with waste.
When the pandemic hit, neighborhoods like Allerton and neighboring Pelham Gardens were among the worst hit by COVID-19. After weeks of quarantine, Pelham Parkway became a daily oasis for many in the area. “It’s like our living room now,” said Carmen Suárez, who lives a block away with her husband and two sons. She had been sunbathing on a magenta beach towel while her kids played nearby before they joined in Monday’s cleanup.
Even as pandemic-induced restrictions have lifted, neighborhood parks have allowed life to unfold in ways that still aren’t feasible in cramped apartments. They’ve always served as communal backyards, but now they’re the best gym in town, host get-togethers that would’ve happened in bars and reception halls, and serve as a respite for those working from home or the unemployed. And advocates don’t expect parks’ sudden popularity to wane in the cooler fall and winter months to come.
During Monday’s cleanup, it wasn’t a tough sell to get locals to become ad hoc trash collectors. Delgado, who was dressed in a brown T-shirt printed with “Sorry, I can’t, I have plans with my dog,” offered Luna bars as snacks to hustling volunteers and had a big jug of NYS Clean Hand Sanitizer on hand scribbled with hearts and “For Volunteers” in purple marker. At a pedestrian walkway that cuts through the parkway on Wallace Avenue, Stephanie Ramos manned a small volunteer table where curious parkgoers stopped to chat. “People are usually very willing to help,” said Ramos, who grew up in the area with her mother and brother. “It’s worth taking care of because why go somewhere else when we have all this right here?” she said, gesturing toward the winding tree-lined paths and rose garden planted last year by volunteers.
Suárez, who lost her job at a midtown hotel in March, said the parkway has basically become her family’s second home: She’s hosted a birthday for one of her sons there, a belated high-school-graduation party for her niece, and numerous picnics since May. “Everything that can’t happen at home with family has happened here,” Suárez said. “We always clean up after ourselves, but a lot of people don’t. They treat the park like it’s a dump, but it’s literally keeping us all from going crazy, and we need to value that.”
For Ricardo Cruz, a cook at a local diner, picking up paper plates and straws with his 7-year-old daughter, Virginia, was as much about teaching her to care for the environment as it was about the importance of taking care of her neighborhood. As Virginia put it, “It makes me feel good, and it’s important because trees need water, not garbage.”
Back at the volunteer table, Delgado is scanning for her next mark. “I ask for five minutes, but they end up spending an hour,” she said, and you can tell she is smiling behind her leaf-print mask.