North and South Don’t Share the Same View on Conditions at One Manhattan Park
John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times
On a warm, cloudless day a few weeks ago, Riverside Park hummed with activity. At the annual Oyster Festival, crowds of people downed freshly shucked oysters and drank pints of Guinness as the Hudson River lapped softly in the background.
In the same park, about 30 blocks to the north, the scene was less genteel. Two homeless women, one speaking animatedly, the other silently combing her hair with her fingers, negotiated with a crack cocaine dealer.
“Come over here a minute,” he told them, gesturing to an overgrown section where soiled mattresses lay in a tangle of weeds.
Both episodes took place within half an hour of each other at one of the city’s most popular open spaces. The park’s southern tier, which stretches some 266 acres along the river from 59th Street to 125th Street, has among its highlights immaculate lawns, sand volleyball courts, a preserve for bird watching, and tennis courts and baseball and soccer fields that have been resurfaced in the past 18 months.
The park’s 50-acre northern section, which continues along the river from 125th Street to 158th Street, has none of those amenities. The divots in the two ball fields are so deep that they remain full of water for days after rainstorms, leading children to place sections of cardboard over them in order to play baseball.
In the north, as well, a thriving open-air sex market exists, with mattresses and lean-tos fashioned out of plastic bags and cast-off clothes for privacy. There are discarded hypodermic needles, crack cocaine paraphernalia, mounds of trash and the stench of human waste.
Outside a playground at 141st Street and Riverside Drive, the walkway is sinking — taking a picnic table and two benches with it.
At another playground, there is a hole in the granite pavement about the size of a child’s foot. The Parks Department has placed a metal sheet over it, but people who use the playground said the hole has gone unrepaired for more than two years.
In a recent interview, William Castro, the Parks Department’s Manhattan borough commissioner, said he had been unaware of many of the trash and maintenance problems at the northern end of the park. Mr. Castro, in fact, said the department spent roughly the same amount to maintain each end of the park.
“The capital dollars that go to the northern part of the park is approximately equal to the south,” he said. “And the cleaning in both parts is about the same.”
But the disparity in conditions between the two sections is so stark that longtime residents say it is as if a line has been drawn at 125th Street.
Savona Bailey-McClain, a Harlem resident and executive director of the West Harlem Art Fund, said she has been working for years to win what she defines as parity for the northern tier of Riverside Park and has recently helped develop a master plan for an overall improvement of the area.
“That area of the park has been neglected for decades — not weeks, not months, not years — decades,” she said.
Park advocates say public complaints about uneven maintenance in city parks is not new, but at Riverside Park, the differences seem particularly conspicuous. The northern end includes areas where wild vines grow out of broken lampposts and the park’s benches have been removed, leaving holes in the pavement. Barricades have also been posted across entry stairways with “No Trespassing” signs.
Mr. Castro said the economic differences between the neighborhoods that border the two sections of Riverside Park — the more affluent Upper West Side and the more economically uneven streets of Harlem — had nothing to do with the way the department maintained either end.
According to the Parks Department’s Web site, its inspectors have consistently rated the cleanliness of the northern section as being “acceptable,” the highest rating it awards.
Still, last month, after inquiries were made about cleaning and maintenance in the northern tier, the Parks Department began a cleanup that included evicting homeless people and dismantling their shanties, removing truckloads of garbage, and using high powered hoses to cleanse urine and feces stained staircases.
Left behind was a massive pile of trash that neighbors said has been growing for years. Mr. Castro said Parks Department workers had not found it during the cleanup.
“We need to do a better job of cleaning it,” Mr. Castro said of the northern section. He said he planned to place an extra cleaning crew in the area.
But Mr. Castro said some portions of the northern tier were magnets for litterbugs. He said cleaning the northern section’s steep slopes was difficult because workers have a hard time keeping their balance.
“It’s very dangerous, dirty, hard work for our park workers to clean the slopes,” he said.
Mr. Castro acknowledged that sex and drug trades in the northern tier has been a problem for years.
Mr. Castro said the city could do little to stop the illegal activities or to fix the section of the northern tier that is sinking. He said the metal plate covering the hole outside the playground made the play area secure.
“It is safe,” he said.
But William Artist, 42, who said he refuses to let his son play in the playground anymore, disagreed.
“I stopped letting him go there because the whole thing might collapse,” he said. “It’s dangerous, and they won’t fix it.”
Jim Dowell, president of the Riverside Park Fund, a private, nonprofit group that he said spends about $2 million a year on various projects in the park, said he has heard few, if any complaints, about inequality between the south and north sides of the park.
“I could take you places up there that are just as well-maintained as anywhere else in the park,” he said.
While parks officials say there are no homeless encampments in the southern park, the people who live in the northern part said they remain there because they are undisturbed by parks workers.
“We come here because nobody bothers us here,” said a man in his 40’s who gave his name as Georgie. “We like it dirty.”