Parks and recreation

As city expands recreation outlets for youth, residents hope parks don’t get lost in the shuffle

Ever since her son Dareus Burgess was gunned down near the Cosmo “Gussy” DiSanto Memorial Playground in June of 2009, Miriam Melendez has become an unofficial caretaker of the park, located in the Marion/Journal Square neighborhood. Each night at 10 p.m., she locks the municipal park to keep out loiterers and would-be drug dealers, and she can often be seen walking the blocks around the park, talking to residents about local concerns and serving as a one-woman community watchdog.
For months, Melendez said she has been trying to get the city to replace several street lights in and around DiSanto playground in an effort to make the area less attractive to the clusters of teens and young adults that sometimes congregate after she locks up.
While these individuals may be innocent youngsters just hanging out with their friends, some residents find their presence intimidating and others assume they are up to no good. Either way, Melendez insists that better lighting would only help the situation. The park – which is bordered by Broadway, West Side Avenue, and Corbin Avenue – is a few yards from the scene of an alleged attempted robbery that resulted in a shooting last month, and it is across the street from a Sikh temple that was recently robbed

As the city struggles to reign in gun violence, in part by expanding recreational programs for youth, some residents hope that community playgrounds don’t get buried in a list of shifting priorities.
“I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve called the Department of Public Works (DPW) about these lights,” Melendez said last week, shaking her cell phone for emphasis.
As the city struggles to reign in gun-related violence, in part by expanding recreational programs for youth, some residents hope that community playgrounds and the role they serve for families don’t get buried in a list of shifting priorities by a new administration.
“I can’t vote in America because I’m not a citizen now. But my husband can vote here and he voted for [Steven Fulop],” said Sarita Vashti, a resident of Pavonia Avenue who also lives near DiSanto Memorial Playground. “That park right now, it is okay in the day. But after six, seven, I get my kids out, even when there is no school. It is too dark, too many people just standing around. I don’t feel comfortable, so we go.”
When asked what steps the city is taking to address concerns about DiSanto, city spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill would only say that a “lighting analysis and repair request will be submitted to PSE&G regarding this issue.”
But Melendez questions why these requests haven’t been made in the past.
“Like I said, I’ve been calling about this for months,” she stated.

Grandmother: ‘I am hoping …’

DiSanto Memorial Playground is one of several community parks residents complain about frequently. Another, located in Pershing Field in the Heights, is “rundown and dilapidated,” according to resident Sandy Gonzalez. “I want to be able to take my grandson to enjoy himself at this location and not be afraid he’ll get hurt. I have to travel to other parks, such as Newport’s new beautiful water park…I am hoping that with voicing my opinion as well as others who have the same mind frame we are able to get something done.”
(In fairness to the city, the playground at Newport Green, which Gonzalez is referring to, is not a municipal park. That park was built and is maintained by the LeFrak Organization, which developed most of the residential housing in the Newport area.)
In regards to Pershing Field, it appears little progress has been made since February, when the city, then under the administration of former Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, was trying to figure out how best to use Green Acres funding designated for the Pershing Field playground.
At that time, former DPW Director Rodney Hadley said it would cost about $600,000 to renovate this playground, which has aging equipment and padded flooring that has several worn spots from years of use. The city applied for a $3 million Green Acres grant to renovate seven city parks, but received only $900,000 in funding. Since this $900,000 grant must be spread across seven park renovation projects, the city lacked the $600,000 needed to renovate Pershing Field.
(A debate among local residents as to whether the Pershing Field playground and basketball court should be switched further contributed to the impasse.)
When asked whether any progress has been made since the Fulop administration took office on July 1, Morrill said, “Repair work is to be performed shortly,” without providing information regarding what that repair work will entail, when it will begin, how much it will cost, where the funds are coming from, or whether the playground and basketball court will be switched or not.
Former fire code officer Michael Razzoli is the city’s new DPW director.

Light at the end of the tunnel for Mary Benson Park?

Environmental remediation work being done on a third municipal park, Mary Benson Park on Merseles Street downtown, might finally get underway in the fall. The park has been closed since June of last year when elevated levels of lead were discovered in the park’s playground area. Lead levels found at the park exceed state limits for residential areas, according to city officials.
The lengthy closure has delayed plans by parent and community groups to build a new playground at the park.
DPW and the city’s Division of Architecture discovered the elevated lead levels as part of the preparation process for installing new equipment in the park.
Two out of four environmental tests conducted at the park found that sub-soils there exceeded standards set by the New Jersey Residential Soil Remediation Standards for lead. These samples were taken by an independent geotechnical and environmental materials testing consultant and were taken in four distinct locations within the playground area.
Last fall the city hired AMEC, an environmental remediation and civil engineering firm, to draft what Morrill called a Preliminary Assessment Report. With that report now completed, she said, “The remediation bid is currently under legal review. Once the project is awarded remediation will begin.”

E-mail E. Assata Wright at

© 2000, Newspaper Media Group