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Riverside Park Is Falling Apart

Photo: Justin Davidson

In a city that’s always racing to patch itself up before it falls apart, parks are a good measure of success. Smashed benches, pitted asphalt, brown lawns, and rusty slides yell trouble even more clearly than tumbling rents and empty storefronts. The time, money, and labor it takes to reverse those signs of decline keep relentlessly compounding. There’s no V-shaped recovery for a park.

All through the pandemic year, I’ve visited and revisited parks in nearly every borough: the marshes and spits at Pelham Bay; the snow-dusted beach at Coney Island; the hilltop monument in Fort Greene, swathed in smoke from a dozen barbecues on a warm spring afternoon; the old-growth forest of Inwood Hill; the primeval hollows of Forest Park, belted by multi-lane roads and cut through by railroad tracks; the straight line of the Croton Aqueduct as it traverses Van Cortlandt Park. And nearly every day, I patrol miles of Riverside Park, which spills like a long gown from Manhattan’s shoulder to the Hudson River. The urge to get outdoors has given me plenty of chances to examine a glorious system in various phases of distress. The fact that so many of us have felt the same impulse has put the parks under new pressures, increasing litter and pounding new paths through eroded grass.

You might expect Riverside Park to be a manicured standout, second only to Central Park in its lacquered gloss. Long, narrow, and picturesquely steep, it skirts some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods (as well as clusters of public housing), plus Columbia University and a clutch of other educational institutions, all of which share an interest in well-tended open space. Unlike nearly all its siblings, it has its own private conservancy, which raises money to plant flowers, perform light maintenance, and undertake the occasional renovation of a staircase or a dog run. The hills are magnets for masked citizen-gardeners, who spend their Saturdays mulching and deadheading.

Yet in what should be the pride of the Parks Department, the state of deep decay is alarming and accelerating. Flagstones lie shattered. Orange traffic cones sit in sinkholes. Century-old staircases have crumbled into rubble. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument, once the gem of the Upper West Side, has been fenced off and left to gracefully decompose. A dozen or so street lights always seem to be on the blink, casting mugger-friendly stretches of darkness on winter afternoons.

The problems run below the surface too. After decades of neglect, drainage pipes have cracked and sumps filled with silt, so that now every rain turns lawns into bogs or outright duck ponds. When the floodwaters eventually dry, they leave a surface of cracked dirt. Above 110th Street, paved paths have all but crumbled away and maintenance trucks leave deep tracks in the mud. For years, park-watchers have worried that so much standing water would erode the steel-and-concrete tunnel that runs below the park, speeding Amtrak trains between Penn Station and points north. In December 2019, the city allocated $11.5 million to study and fix the worst of the drainage issues in an eight-block stretch north of 108th Street, but construction on that project has yet to begin.

In 2016, the Parks Department compiled a long-range master plan for Riverside Park, a document so dauntingly exhaustive — “aspirational” is the word parks commissioner Mitchell Silver uses — that nobody has any idea how much it would cost to carry out. “It’s a monster set of needs,” says Riverside Park Conservancy president Daniel Garodnick, “well beyond the city’s capacity to handle in one fell swoop.” The city chips away at it: The sidewalk gets repaired a few blocks at a time, a playground is renovated, a skate park rebuilt. For a dozen blocks north of 70th Street, bikes have been diverted onto their own upper path, away from toddlers and shufflers. But, especially in the stretch above 97th Street, disrepair keeps outrunning the staff’s ability to deal with it.

The long cliffside park was laid out in the 1870s, but train tracks and a strip of grimy industrial waterfront separated it from the river and filled the air with soot. In the 1930s, the city covered the tracks with bridges and draped the park on top. Merging infrastructure and landscape was visionary then, and now, in the era of climate change, it’s just as promising, but it does complicate maintenance. Age can be brutal for viaducts and tunnels, and also for the parks they hold up. Just ask the dangerously brittle Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which runs the risk of failing beneath the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. A few months ago, in Riverside Park, the promenade that stretches between 99th and 110th Streets buckled at several points, like evidence of an earthquake. Metal fences went up around the cracks and holes, preventing police cars and garbage trucks from making their usual rounds. (Cyclists go around the barriers, carving new bikeways in the soft soil.) When I asked how severe the damage was and whether the structure — called the overbuild — was sound, the Parks Department referred me to the Department of Transportation, which referred me right back to Parks. Neither offered any detail.

Then, Mayor Bill de Blasio detonated a blast of municipal largesse: $348 million dedicated to repairing the overbuild, the most expensive renovation project in the park since the 1930s and possibly the largest for any city park, ever. That truckload of cash comes on top of the $290 million allocated to reconstruct the 79th Street Rotunda (a cylindrical structure with a roadway on top and — in the past, anyway — a restaurant below) and the Boat Basin. That is wonderful news: Four or five (or six) years from now, a walk in the park might be a less amphibious experience.

To some extent, the project’s magnitude is baked into Riverside Park’s age and engineering: A rickety park does need overhauling every century or so. But the sums involved are also symptoms of more ordinary, day-to-day neglect. Anyone who has ever struggled with a leaky faucet or watched grout between bathroom tiles turn to dust knows that today’s small job becomes tomorrow’s major undertaking. The trouble is that bureaucracies share the human impulse to procrastinate; they formalize it, in fact. The parks department’s annual expense allocation, which was slashed in 2020 and reinstated this year, fluctuates around half of one percent of the city’s total budget, never enough to hold off the forces of entropy. A 2018 study by the Center for an Urban Future estimated that in most years the department has enough to cover only about 15 percent of its ever-increasing needs.

“It’s subject to boom-and-bust cycles,” says Adam Ganser, executive director of the advocacy organization New Yorkers for Parks. “If the economy tanks, Parks is the first to get cut.” When needs balloon or become suddenly grave, the mayor can sometimes slide big sums from one column to another. Individual city council members can free up discretionary funds or lobby their colleagues to earmark specific projects. (Private donations play a major role only in Central Park, where the conservancy manages the landscape on the city’s behalf and residents of some of the world’s most expensive real estate kick in about $74 million a year to keep their backyard in good fettle.) New Yorkers for Parks has spent much of the spring trying to eke a promise out of the candidates for mayor: that they will double the department’s share of the city budget to one percent, which would be transformative. So far, Andrew Yang, Scott Stringer, Kathryn Garcia, Shaun Donovan, Ray McGuire, and Art Chang have taken that vow.

When Silver, who has been running the department since 2014 and plans to step down soon, has pressed his boss for more money, he’s done so discreetly and in private, leaving advocates to do the yelling and screaming. Silver’s been adroit at managing these fickle streams of funding. Keenly aware that the parks system replicates other urban inequities — residents of vast areas of Brooklyn and Queens have scant access to greenery — he launched the Community Parks Initiative, a $318 million campaign that rehabbed 67 long-neglected neighborhood parks in underserved areas. He claims to have shaved months off the multi-year process of getting a playground rebuilt and points to his record of delivering hundreds of capital projects on time and on budget. Full-time staff has dwindled; instead, roving teams of workers show up where they’re needed on any given day. But the lesson of all that managerial efficiency is a false one — that the city can muddle along indefinitely, performing the landscape equivalent of battlefield triage, and deferring deferrable problems until they finally become too dangerous and embarrassing to ignore. At a time when the city needs to make the case to every current and prospective New Yorker that this is where they should want to live, it can’t let its approach to open space be dictated by emergency and shame.

Riverside Park Is Falling Apart