Volunteers Focus Effort to Help City Hall Park, 'Hit Hard' by Cuts

Led by City Hall Park gardener Phil Evich, right, volunteers turn over a compost heap during their weekly day of volunteer work in the park. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Nov. 20, 2020

“These are the most deplorable conditions I’ve seen since we started this organization.”

Skip Blumberg, president of Friends of City Hall Park, the volunteer group he founded in 1992, was standing on a park path pocked with broken bluestone pavers and decrying what he says is the city’s inattention to maintenance. Nearby, his group of volunteers were raking leaves and, as they’ve been doing each Wednesday since July, helping out where they can in the face of staff shortages.

Phil Evich, the eight-acre park’s only gardener and horticulturist, whose last day on the job was Friday, said the work of maintaining the understaffed park has been a challenge. What used to be eight to 10 workers before the pandemic, he said, is now an average of three, including himself. “We got cut hard with the budget in July and the mayor just doesn’t seem interested in supporting parks right now,” said Evich, who the Friends group lauded for the wealth of horticultural knowledge he has passed on to them. (He is leaving to be a horoculturist at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.)

“You don’t get to everything,” Evich added. “Beds get neglected, things that could use more plants don’t get them. You can only install so much as one person. Physically, I’m sore and worn down and can’t work as efficiently as I want to be. Things don’t get done.” 

A Parks Department spokeswoman said in an email that another gardener will take over this coming week and that four other full-time staff perform daily assignments of “weed-whacking, lawn mowing, and litter and debris removal.”

“We remain committed to caring for City Hall Park and parks throughout the city,” the spokeswoman said, noting that the Parks Department was hit with a $84 million budget reduction, leading to a 45% cut in seasonal staff in parks across the city.

Blumberg revived his organization after the city closed the park for three months last summer, the result of protests and the occupation of the park’s northeast plaza. He lobbied to get the park reopened and started the group’s weekly gardening routine. With the park still closed, they worked the beds across the street, near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Along with advocating for more park staffing, Blumberg has his eye on the northeast plaza, much of it still barricaded. He has long wanted the space reimagined as an extension of the park, rather than the tourist draw for street performers and food carts that it has been.

“We want the Police Department to do a walkthrough with us to help us figure out what we should do. Then we’re going to start a charette to design possibilities for the plaza to make a real substantive impact.” He said the group plans to lobby local elected officials for support. But a lawsuit, aimed at reopening the plaza and lawns still off limits, also remains a possibility.

Blumberg argues that state law prohibits taking away park access without state legislation. In 2006, he said, he managed to convince officials to reopen the park path at Warren Street, closed after 9/11, only when they thought they might be sued. “After lobbying, emailing, and holding events with a few hundred people, none of it worked until we threatened a lawsuit.”

Whatever happens in the future, the volunteers are cheered weekly by the chance to help beautify a park that many call their backyard. April Bovet, with her young son, has been a regular park user since moving across the street five years ago. In September, when the barricades finally came down, she was ready to be involved. “Getting to know the gardener and realizing how much work he has to do, with very little help on these eight acres, I wanted to do a small part,” she said. “It’s wonderful to garden on a weekly basis and then think about other ways to improve the park.”

“You come to look forward to it,” said Blumberg, whose early cleanups of the then derelict City Hall Park in 1996 opened the eyes of city officials and led to a transformative $28 million restoration and redesign. All the raking, weeding and planting, he added, “enhances the urban experience, to put your hands in dirt, get close to nature, and to socialize. In the end you feel like you’ve accomplished something and you sleep better at night. This is a service to us.”