green space

‘Plastic Park’ Isn’t Happening — So What Should a Marsha P. Johnson Tribute Look Like?

Visitors strolling through Marsha P. Johnson State Park in Williamsburg. Photo: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Following public backlash against a plan to cover roughly an acre of concrete slab in Marsha P. Johnson State Park with a plastic mural, the state parks system has scrapped it. The move comes after Johnson’s family, trans activists, and North Brooklyn residents decried the lack of community outreach in the process of designing a space for the first park in state history named for an LGBTQ figure. In a letter this week to Brooklyn Community Board 1 announcing the change, a state parks official said the agency will continue to work on infrastructure upgrades and will begin developing a new design for the Williamsburg green space through a series of community workshops. “There were many voices in the neighborhood who did not believe they had a chance to be heard and it is our first and foremost priority to rectify that immediately,” wrote Leslie Wright, the city’s regional director for the state’s park system.

Many had hoped a design overhaul would mean significantly expanding green space in the park by digging up at least one of two concrete slabs. Wright, in her letter, promised to “reduce their footprint and increase greenspace,” but at the same time the state is accepting proposals for food vendors who would operate on both of the slabs. With the park’s design up in the air, we asked locals, activists, and Johnson’s family members what they’d ideally like to see in the space. Here’s what they had to say.

Anika Dorsey Good, Johnson’s great-niece

We want it to look like a park: so more green space, the removal of those concrete slabs, more flowers. We’re echoing a lot of what the community has already shared. I would think something with a lot of greenery and real flowers, something that is bright, bold, and that’s making a statement. But also making a space that maybe youth who identify as LGBTQ … will feel welcome and a sense of belonging. The design as it exists now includes bright colors and things of that nature, but the slabs almost make it feel like it’s not a park. And again, when you think of a park you think of grass, greenery, flowers, maybe space where people can have picnics. A space that people of all ages can enjoy, that kids can enjoy, whether that’s a swing set or something like large recycled tires with plantings inside. Let’s also do something that would be good for the environment — maybe using recycled items, less plastic. Perhaps we could have a community garden. There are those who are food impoverished, let’s grow some items in the garden and donate it to a shelter, you know, let’s take it a step further. You want a park that anyone can enjoy, whether it’s a 2-year-old child or it’s a homeless LGBTQ youth.

Mariah Lopez, a transgender activist with the Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform, a group founded by Johnson and fellow gay liberation activist Sylvia Rivera

We think where everything went wrong was this process not being opened up to the public, and also not feeling like Marsha’s character was a part of the process. We want the park design process to be something that is way more public-facing and involves the public.

What if there’s a competition of sorts for the design, and some of the elements have to be recycled materials? I would like gigantic gardens, something bold, maybe even homeless-friendly architecture.

I also have one other idea that seems like it’s only in my dreams: an apiary. Some type of intentionally bold, but not super-expensive design, where you’re like, “Oh yeah, we didn’t think of that, but Marsha would have totally loved it and probably thought of it.” If I don’t get my dream apiary, I think at the minimum, what do you want? A space that can become a meeting point, a welcoming point for the LGBT people of the neighborhood. The neighborhood doesn’t have a huge organic LGBT youth contingent that uses that space right now, but if you build it, they will come.

James Carey, Johnson’s cousin

Marsha probably would have wanted something that’s vibrant, where members of the LGBT community could come and relax and kick their feet up and feel at home and feel an appreciation for her struggles. And feel that this is the product of her sacrifice, and also of Sylvia [Rivera], and others. If they do feel the need to leave a slab there, let’s have a slab engraved with the names of trans women who lost their lives and as a memory to them.

Mihalis Petrou, a horticulturist who has worked in North Brooklyn parks

The main idea I have is a spinoff of the Pride flag idea. As far as I know, the earth over there is polluted. So if there is such a need to maintain that paved area, the vision I would have is to maintain that linear design with planters that go along those lines with native flowers of the same color scheme. Instead of something synthetic, we could grow flowers that would have that color naturally. It would be very vibrant, especially from a distance.

I would fill them full of black-eyed Susans, cardinal flower, coneflower, then great blue lobelia, and New England aster. Right there that’s yellow, red, pink, blue, and purple. I’d also love to see inkberry and Oregon grape. (It’s not grapes, it’s just the name of it.) They’re both evergreen, so if you’re visiting the park in the winter months, it’s not going to be just bare branches. We need to add milkweed because in the fall we’ll have all the monarch butterflies. I’d want goldenrod and bergamot, too. For trees I’d definitely like to see river birch, it absorbs a lot of the pollution in the air, and American holly trees are evergreen and provide shelter for birds migrating along the water. So I feel like this would be the ideal tribute to not just trans women, iconic trailblazers for queer rights, but for anyone. When you want to honor someone, you go to birthdays, you go to ceremonies, you go to funerals, and you give real flowers. Giving so much natural color to the area, I think, would honor Marsha P. Johnson’s spirit.

Ryan Kuonen, a member of Brooklyn Community Board 1 who lives near the park

I think we should stop the process and have a conversation about how much pavement this park really needs. It’s always a delicate balance between passive and active space within parks. There should be talks about where there’s places to recreate and where there’s places to chill and what the community gets out of its whole network of parks. I’m not against having some paved space, that platform is a place where people barbecue. I’m against the idea that we have to replace it. I want a real dialogue about all elements of the park, not just the ones the state deems they want to talk to us about. Like, if there’s going to be classroom space in the park house, if it’s going to be a part of Marsha P. Johnson State Park, then it needs to have real education and real space for Black and brown trans people. The neighborhood should talk about what we want, and not have the state just tell us what they decided.

What Should a Marsha P. Johnson Park Tribute Look Like?