By Lucas Kavner
The Open Space Alliance walks a complicated line. On the one hand you have a community-based organization that, through private fundraising, works to improve and create public spaces and develop a diverse array of programming for North Brooklyn. On the other hand you have Stephanie Thayer. Thayer is the OSA’s executive director, but also serves as an “administrator” for the city’s Parks Department—an employee of a city, which, in case you haven’t noticed, is rather strapped for cash at the moment. So where does that leave the Open Space Alliance? Are they fighting with themselves over how to best use their own money? Do they side with government interests or with the community they represent?
For the most part, Thayer seems comfortable with the balance. However, a few issues still loom over North Brooklyn’s public spaces. They include the extremely popular free summer concert series—though the OSA and newly hipster-fied-friend-of-Jay-Z Senator Charles Schumer have pledged to keep them alive—and Newtown Creek, the 3.5 mile-long estuary that remains a mass of toxic sludge the EPA warns could take 20 years to clean up. [Since the printing of this story, the pool parties have been reinstated.]
In this interview with The WG News, Stephanie Thayer tells us where her loyalties lie, why we should be hopeful for 2010, and how the OSA can use your help.
What are some of OSA’s plans for 2010?
There are big plans for this year. McCarren Park Pool is in full construction for swimming and year round recreation; Transmitter Park will be in renovation for a playground, bird garden, and fishing pier; phase two of Bushwick inlet—including playgrounds and community facilities—will be in construction; the first segment of our waterfront esplanade will open; and we are planning improvements in Rodney Park.
We also accomplished a lot in 2009. We built and opened the athletic field at Bushwick Inlet, opened the skateboard park adjacent to McCarren pool, and opened a kayak launch and greening at the end of Manhattan Avenue. We also tore down illegal gates to create public waterfront access in Greenpoint, opened North 5th Street Pier to the public, and planted trees, grass, and gardens in McCarren, Cooper, and McGolrick parks.
As director of OSA, you’re working for both the city government and the community’s interests. Can you talk about the position that puts you in?
I live in the neighborhood, as well as work in and for our neighborhood, and I have a history of community activism. Ultimately my job is to get new parks built and improve our existing neighborhood parks, and these goals are shared by both our community and the city. In the past I would pound the doors from outside; now I can pound the conference room table inside, so to speak. My goals are still the same, but as part of city government I have a lot more resources and support where needed to make them happen. As a resident of the community I push that much harder to green North Brooklyn for my friends and neighbors.
You ran into so many hurdles with the “Pool Parties” series, first at McCarren Park and then at East River State Park. Do you envision other outdoor venues for live music/theatre/arts in the future?
Yes, it was absolutely a challenge for OSA to gain the support needed across many community groups, residents, multiple government agencies and officials, never mind the financial haul and risks involved. The result? OSA raised more than $90,000 from the concerts for physical improvements to this park. The East River State Park had to close in early 2009 due to the fiscal crunch, but the OSA insured that won’t have to happen again in 2010. OSA also expanded small scale programming throughout our district, working with many partners to bring free local indie movies to Sternberg’s handball courts, free theater using playground equipment as sets, and childrens’ crafting in McCarren. Transmitter Park was transformed with community groups hosting free dance performance, art, and movies. In the coming summer, I would like to see the underutilized Newtown Barge Park, at the tip of Greenpoint, activated for small scale, appropriate programming, and encourage our local talented performing artists to get in contact with me through firstname.lastname@example.org.
So what’s the current status of the programming at East River State Park?
Last summer there were 60 events there and more than half a dozen promoters. “Pool Parties” is a trademark of one promoter, but there wasn’t just one promoter doing concerts at the pool. There’s the strange assumption that every concert that’s in a pool or a park, any large scale concert, that it’s one promoter—that it’s a “Jelly Pool Party”—that’s not the case. The exact status is that the concerts will certainly work out this summer; we will host concerts at the waterfront.
What plans are in the works for testing and revitalizing Newtown Creek? Do you know anything we don’t know?
Newtown Creek has not been officially designated,as a Superfund site, though it will likely happen. It is correct that this will be a very long-term effort to continue testing, then plan and remediate. The city has urged, among other things, that the EPA help us insure that creating new waterfront parks can proceed as planned along with the clean-up.
What are the major impediments to more public space in Brooklyn?
Money! Takes green to make North Brooklyn more green. Nevermind the gazillion dollars needed to build the parks that our neighborhood needs and deserves, we are chronically short of the basics, such as enough garbage bags for the district. The children at PS 132 collected their pennies to help plant a butterfly garden in Cooper Park. Any amount donated to www.osanb.org is a significant contribution to improve our parks and make a better North Brooklyn.