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The Gates of Seward Park

The centerpiece of our neighborhood is Seward Park (the park, not the co-op). However, there is a factor that severely limits its use — although it is the centerpiece of the neighborhood, it can only be entered and exited from East Broadway near Jefferson Street; the park's front gates on Essex Street have long been locked. With only one entry/exit point, the park can only be visited with the express purpose of visiting the park in-and-of itself, and not as a means of taking a pleasant stroll say, from Jefferson Street to the Hester Street Fair.

The reason for this is that the park is not considered a park — it is considered a children's playground. Indeed there are many families who frequent the park on weekends. But to designate this vast space solely as a playground deprives neighbors who don't have time to dawdle in the park, but would still like to pass through it. More importantly, the park's having only one entrance/exit negatively impacts the neighborhood and local economy.

Some years ago, the Hester Street Fair had just launched, and a greenmarket was established on Essex Street, just outside Seward Park's locked gates. Traffic to the greenmarket and to the Hester Street Fair languished — there just wasn't enough pedestrian traffic to sustain them! The greenmarket never came back, and the Hester Street Fair reduced its operations to just one day per weekend.

I believe these markets would have found greater success if visitors could have meandered through the park towards them, rather that walk down the dingy desolation of Essex Street. I believe people visiting the park on weekends would be inclined to visit stores and restaurants on Essex and Hester Streets if the gates were open. I believe that if the park were open, visitors to Essex or Hester Street stores would end up spending more time (and money) in our neighborhood, rather than just settling down (inappropriately and perhaps annoyingly) on the lawn outside of Building 4. And I believe that some appealing restaurants and stores would open on Essex and Hester Streets, and even on Grand Street if there was more regular pedestrian traffic in that area. This last point bears some emphasis — this is not a Seward Park Coop issue, and the benefit would not be limited to the Hester Street Fair. I believe that improved pedestrian access and circulation through the neighborhood will foster neighborhood and economic growth.

People in the Parks Department have cited safety concerns as a reason for keeping the gates closed. However, wouldn't the park be safer if it had multiple access points? In the event of an emergency, first responders need a way to get in, and the public needs a way to get out! By way of comparison, Tompkins Square Park contains a large playground with multiple access points which is not associated with safety problems; Sol Lain playground just to the south of us has at least five exits, and is not associated with safety problems either.

Opening the park gates can stimulate our entire neighborhood in very meaningful ways. Furthermore, I therefore think that a trial should be conducted this summer and fall of opening the gates during the weekend, and also having increased police presence while those gates are open. Based on such a trial, feedback can be gathered from local residents, families, businesses, police, and the parks department... and intelligent discussion of the options can be pursued.

I envision the gates of Seward Park being opened. I envision Seward Park finally uniting (rather than separating) the communities that live to its south, east and west sides. I envision visitors to the park naturally wandering into new stores and restaurants on Essex, Hester and Grand Streets that open and thrive in response to increased pedestrian traffic. Imagine: Canal Street could originate at a graceful plaza, a park and a thriving neighborhood, instead of at a skid row.

I am in discussion with a many people with regard to this initiative, and hope to have some letters or petitions available soon. Progressing on this will certainly take concerted effort, and I encourage neighbors — especially those with families or businesses in the area — to get involved. Please contact me to find out more.

Dan Strum
June 12, 2012